As we approach “College Decision Day” on May 1st, high school seniors and transferring college students have much to celebrate! If they haven’t already, they will soon make their college admission decision, and they can begin planning for the next steps in their life. There will be lots of pre-grad activities, commencement, and then all of the after-parties. Some students will be taking a “senior trip” to ring-in their new-found freedom, and many students will be planning to move out on their own for the first time.
But what often gets lost in all the hoopla is that many students and families haven’t fully worked out how they will pay for college. This is why it is so important for students to apply for scholarships year-round and work while in school. But unfortunately, most students only apply for scholarships in the first few months of the year. And due to extracurriculars and other activities that were needed to get into college, many students put-off getting a job until after they graduate high school. This then leads to the Scholarship Scramble.
What is the Scholarship Scramble?
The Scholarship Scramble typically begins mid-Summer, as students and families are starting to look more closely at the cost of college. Perhaps the enrollment deposit and housing deposits have been paid, and the family is starting to shop for decor for the dorm room. For students who will be living far from home, travel is being booked for the student to attend orientation, and for the student to move out to college. Perhaps the student is also asking to have a car on-campus, which means that in addition to the cost of the car itself and the gas, the car will also need to be insured. Suddenly the costs are adding up and the reality has become clear.
Now a conversation begins around the kitchen table, as the family grapples with unplanned costs that are already driving up the overall cost of college, well before the student has even attended a single class. With the summer half-over, and with college starting soon, options have dwindled for having more resources to pay for college… And then all of a sudden, an idea occurs to the family – simply earn more scholarships! And so the student does their best to scramble and earn scholarships, but only has a few weeks to do so before the tuition bill is due. This is the Scholarship Scramble – it creates a ton of pressure on students, and the reality is that even for students who are able to earn scholarships within that very tight timeline, the funds might not arrive before that tuition due date.
Scholarships can make a huge difference in a student’s ability to afford college, but waiting until the summer is nearly over to apply for them isn’t an ideal strategy. That’s why it’s so important for students to apply for scholarships year-round, so they can maximize their opportunities, and receive the funds before tuition is actually due.
Why do students often end up scrambling for scholarships?
While many students apply for scholarships earlier in the year, by the time that May 1st rolls around, the majority of students significantly reduce the time they spend on applying for scholarships – and many unfortunately stop applying for scholarships altogether. Why does this occur?
- The college application, financial aid, and decision-making process is super stressful. But once parents have paid the initial enrollment deposit for college, students feel a huge sense of relief. Now they know where they will attend college, and the tendency is to turn away from the stress and focus on celebrating.
- Students also have a sense that their college choice is now “locked in” and believe that even if the cost of college is challenging, that their family will somehow make it work.
- Parents are often focused on celebrating as well – they themselves feel relieved that they know where their child will be going to college, and they are eager to share the good news with friends and family.
- As graduation approaches, and the summer begins, both parents and students are starting to focus on the next steps in the college journey. Students are excited about becoming more independent and self-sufficient, and parents are perhaps looking forward to that too, but they are often also dealing with the emotional impact of having their child separate and move away from home for the first time. And as the new school year approaches, students may also begin to stress further about what it means to live away from home.
The sheer weight of all of these changes often obscures the one thing that hasn’t been fully resolved – how to pay for the first year’s tuition, fees, room and board, books and supplies, and other expenses. While some students will have qualified to receive federal or state grants, grant funds rarely are enough to cover the cost of college. Most students will also need to cobble-together financial support from family, scholarships, as well as their own income to cover college costs. To make up for gaps in funding, many students unfortunately turn to student loans, taking on the burden of debt to be able to afford college.
What strategies can students follow to avoid the Scholarship Scramble?
The best way to avoid the Scholarship Scramble is to plan ahead, and to follow this formula:
- Increase your income through non-loan sources
- Decrease your spending
While this is a simple formula, it does take effort and persistence to be effective. Below, we present specific steps you can take to increase your income and to reduce your expenses.
Avoid the Scholarship Scramble and apply for scholarships year-round – especially during spring and summer months.
Be sure to apply for all three kinds of scholarships:
- Scholarships offered by the college you are attending or plan to attend
- Local scholarships in your community – ask your high school guidance counselor for suggestions
- External private scholarships on the ScholarshipOwl platform – at any given time, we typically have over $800,000 in open, available scholarships you can earn!
It is so important to apply for scholarships year-round, even AFTER you have made your admission decision. Many students assume that scholarships have all been awarded by May 1st, but that simply isn’t true – especially for private external scholarships. If you know you don’t yet have enough money to pay for your first year of college, why stop applying for scholarships in April?? Keep applying all the way through the summer and beyond. Many students earn scholarships in the fall, even after the school year begins. So don’t give up on applying for scholarships when there are so many amazing opportunities available throughout the year!
Work full-time during the summer, and part-time during the school year.
If you are a younger high school student, take heed! Start working in your junior year of high school and continue working all the way through your entire education. Work full-time during summers, and part-time during the school year. Even at minimum wage, if you save most of your earnings, you’ll be able to put away a significant amount of money for college! If you are a high school senior or current college student and haven’t made employment a priority, it’s not too late. Start looking for work now and focus on having a job lined up by summer! Save as much of your earnings as you can for college.
TIP: Consider applying for jobs where employers provide tuition reimbursement! You would be surprised to discover how many companies do this – even well-known retailers that often hire students, such as Starbucks, Target, Chipotle, Walmart, Best Buy, McDonalds, and many more!
Take on a side hustle to further increase your income.
Even if you are already working, you can earn MORE by taking on a side hustle! So many students take advantage of fun and easy ways to put a little more money in their pocket. Often referred to as “gig work,” side hustles can help you pay for books and supplies, and can also help you with day-to-day expenses like meals, money for gas, and more. What are some ideas for side hustles?
- Driving for Uber or Lyft
- Delivery for DoorDash, UberEats, InstaCart, Shipt
- If you have artistic ability, take on freelance work in graphic design or video editing
- If you are skilled in the trades, consider freelance opportunities involving carpentry, construction, handyperson projects, and more
- Be a dog-walker or pet-sitter or housesitter
- Babysitting is another way to go
- If you have skills with web or mobile development, consider building a website or mobile app that can earn you some passive income!
- Are you a talented home chef? Consider offering catering services for special events or bake sweet treats and sell them
The bottom line: Get creative, and start thinking about how you can earn extra money even if you already have a regular job!
Now let’s look at the other side and talk about ways to REDUCE your expenses. Because if you can maximize your income while minimizing your expenses, college will be much more affordable!
Shorten the time it takes to complete your degree.
If you are currently in high school, and if you are a strong student, you can get a head-start on college by taking AP exams, CLEP exams, or by taking dual enrollment classes while you are still in high school.
- The benefit of taking AP classes is two-fold: By taking a rigorous, college-level class, you’ll get a GPA bump to your weighted GPA. On top of that, if you pass the AP exam at the end of the year with a score of 3 or higher, you may be able to get college credit for the class. But if you don’t pass the exam, you won’t get the credit, so you need to keep that in mind, and the exams are definitely challenging.
- CLEP exams are another option to consider – many colleges will award credits for taking CLEP exams, and sometimes CLEP exams are viewed as slightly easier than AP. So if you take an AP exam in a particular subject and worry that you didn’t do as well as you had hoped, you might want to take the corresponding CLEP exam shortly after the AP to see if you can pass the CLEP. You do not need to take a class at all to take a CLEP exam. You can simply study on your own, maybe with a CLEP test prep book you buy online, and then schedule yourself to take the exam.
- Enroll in an online or in-person community college course, either during the school year while you are in high school, or during the summer while in high school OR while you are in college. If you earn a grade of “C” or better, you can transfer the credits to the college you plan to attend. And if you are still in high school, you can transfer the credits to BOTH your high school AND your intended college!
If you work hard and stay on top of things, you can accrue a lot of college credit even before you step foot in a university classroom. And by taking some additional community college credits during summers while enrolled at your university, you may be able to shave a semester or even a full year off your degree, saving both time and money!
Choose a more affordable college.
This might seem obvious, but many students prioritize prestige and reputation rather than affordability. This can happen with parents as well, who look forward to sharing great news with friends and family. It’s so important to prioritize your out-of-pocket costs when comparing college admission offers.
- Compare financial aid offers and check to see where your out-of-pocket costs will be the lowest BEFORE student loans.
- If possible, choose the college that is most affordable. If you really would prefer to accept a different college’s offer of admission, then reach out to the financial aid office of your first-choice school to see if they might consider awarding you additional scholarships to bring the cost down. If the school you are interested in is a private university, they will often negotiate their financial aid award to accommodate your request.
Trim your living expenses.
One of the best ways to ensure you can pay for college is to live within your means, and to live as affordably as possible.
- Choose a college near where your family lives, and live at home instead of on-campus. This includes the option of starting at a community college so you can live at home for the first two years, and then transfer to a university further from home.
- If you do plan to live away from home while in college, focus on a college where the cost of living is lower. Apartments will be less expensive, and there will likely be less expensive dining and entertainment options as well.
- If you are a college student living away from home, you may qualify for food stamps in your state, even if you didn’t qualify for a Pell Grant. Homelessness and food insecurity has been rising among college students, and access to food stamps have made a big difference for students. Today’s food stamps program is easy to use – you would get a dollar amount allotted to a special debit card every month. When you buy groceries, you would swipe the debit card to pay for them. Also, students can use these cards to pay for fresh food at farmer’s markets.
- You might also be eligible for a discount on your utility bills, such as your gas & electric, water, and/or internet bill. Check with the state where you will be living while attending college to see what is available and how to apply.
- Avoid bringing a car with you to college. Take public transit, bike or walk to get to where you need to go. Not only will you save on gas, but you also won’t need to pay for insurance for your car. If you already have a car, SELL IT and apply the money you earn to your college education. If you are contemplating going to a university far from home, DON’T. Avoid the cost of airfare getting to and from your school several times a year, and choose a school closer to home.
If you find yourself to be in an urgent situation where you are struggling to pay for essential things like food, utilities or rent, contact your school’s financial aid office to ask for suggestions and resources. Sometimes colleges will have emergency grants available for students in dire circumstances. And many campuses have an on-site food pantry to help with essentials, whether or not you are receiving food stamps.
Save on books and supplies.
- Don’t get your books until you’ve attended class – professors will often announce that certain books or materials are “optional” rather than required. This may be surprising, but it’s true! Colleges are well-aware that students struggle to afford required books, so many professors have adapted and make many of their texts optional, meaning that exam questions are not based on that material.
- Once you find out what books and supplies are required, take the time to compare pricing. Consider renting rather than buying books, and/or consider getting a downloadable eBook instead of an actual textbook.
- If your major requires or recommends the purchase of special supplies, talk with your professor and ask for suggestions for reducing the cost of those items. In some cases, you may be able to borrow what is needed.
- Most universities have a library or computer lab where printing is available to students. As such, you may find that you don’t need to buy a printer for your dorm or apartment.
- While it is strongly recommended that each student have their own laptop, if that isn’t possible for you, you may find that using computers available on campus may suffice. That said, some colleges have a laptop-lending program, so ask if yours does.
Trim your “extras” and live more simply.
- Look for free events and activities on-campus and prioritize them over other types of activities that you would have to pay for.
- Investigate all of the free activities, perks and discounts available to college students in the area surrounding the campus. You may find that there are many eateries and stores that offer discounts to students.
- If you live in an apartment, make your own meals as much as possible, and bring leftovers to campus for lunch rather than buying meals at school.
- Look for thrift store buys to furnish your dorm or apartment.
- Refrain from relying on credit cards for routine purchases. Try to not use credit cards at all, except in cases of a true emergency.
- Refrain from traveling back and forth to home and school if the cost of transportation is making it difficult to afford necessities. Encourage friends and family to come out to visit you instead.
The best way to avoid the Scholarship Scramble is to plan ahead, and focus on strategies that increase your income and decrease your spending:
- Apply for scholarships year-round.
- Work part-time during the school year, and full-time during summers – ideally beginning in your junior year of high school all the way through your college education.
- Take on a side hustle to earn extra income.
- Prioritize choosing a more affordable college, and shorten your degree if you can through taking exams for credit or enrolling in dual enrollment courses.
- Live more simply, and make smart choices to reduce day-to-day expenses.
Most importantly – don’t take out student loans as a “solution” to the Scholarship Scramble. If you do, you’ll only be postponing the problem until after you graduate. It takes the average person 20 years to pay-off their student loans! And the amount they end up paying is far higher than the original amount they borrowed due to interest and penalties. Earning $5000 in scholarships or work income now will be far less stressful and less costly than trying to pay it off later on. To find out more and learn how to start your free trial with ScholarshipOwl, visit www.scholarshipowl.com.