Exploring Online College Scholarships

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The cost of college has skyrocketed in recent decades. While many goods have gotten more affordable since the early 1980s, the same can’t be said for higher education costs. 

In fact, since 1980 the cost of higher education has increased eight times faster than the average American’s wages. While it’s important to save (if you can) for college, not many can save that quickly!

So what’s an aspiring college student to do? There are a number of ways to lower the cost of your tuition. First and foremost, individuals can search for programs that are affordable. There’s a huge range in what college costs and choosing the proper college for your budget can be one of the most meaningful ways you can escape taking on too much debt for school. Check out Our Guide to Free Online Colleges to get the scoop.

Secondly, you can choose a major or career based on its ability to pay back any aid you may receive. This doesn’t mean you have to choose a career just because it’s high-paying. Many service-oriented careers offer scholarships that individuals can in some way pay back by working in that field for a number of years after graduation. These are typically available in “helping” careers like education or healthcare-related fields.

A third option is to search for online college scholarships based on your demographics. There are tons of scholarships only available to individuals who identify as a certain ethnicity or gender or who are from a certain location. These “special interest” or demographic-based scholarships are some of the most widely available types of financial aid. One issue that many students face in seeking this type of scholarship, however, is that many of these scholarships aren’t advertised by schools. Instead, potential students will need to seek out scholarships from a diverse range of organizations across the web (that’s partially why we’ve constructed this resource hub at OnlineCollegePlan!). 

One final note is that most students will have a choice between accepting financial aid packages that include a large number of student loans. Student loans can be a non-harmful form of debt, or they can be financially crippling. We’ll talk about the many types of student loans and financial aid packages below to try and provide you with your bearings when it comes to choosing the right financial aid package for you.

We’ve already worked through most of the main types of financial aid in a small amount of detail above. Below we’ll take a deep dive into the most pressing topics you’ll need to understand to make college affordable for you!

Here at OnlineCollegePlan, we’ve spent years researching higher education for potential students, and have compiled a range of other resources around scholarships. Many of these can be seen below: 

As well as our more general financial aid related research including:

The True “Cost” of College

On one level, the price of higher education has increased at a much faster rate than almost any other class of good or service over the last 40 years. Higher education was already one of the largest purchases that individuals or families would make. But as of 1980, many college tuitions were equal to that of a budget automobile. Now, a private college education can exceed the cost of many “starter” homes. 

With that said, one notion that all future students and their families should note is that very few students actually pay the “sticker price” of a school’s tuition

If you find yourself preparing to attend a school where you will pay 100% of the tuition, fees, living expenses, and so forth, take some time to consider other options. While financial matters may not be imperative in your college search, for many, many students, they are. And there’s almost always a more affordable option out there.

For reference, “average” annual tuition costs per type of school can vary greatly:

  • In-State Public University Tuition and Fees in the Most Affordable State: $12,658
  • In-State Public University Tuition and Fees in the Most Expensive State: $40,742
  • In-State Public University Tuition and Fees Average Nationwide: $13,129
  • Average Private University Tuition Nationwide: $24,659
  • Full “Sticker Price” Tuition at Columbia University: $57,208
  • Average In-District Community College Tuition and Fees: $3,347

On top of this, there are a number of options for higher education that are 100% free! A number of states and community college districts provide free tuition, fees, and books for students who are in-state or in-district. This can be the best deal, bar none, for obtaining your first two years of higher education. 

Another very important note about the “true” cost of college is that your expected family contribution may be much lower than the cost of your education. 

If you’ve gone through the college application already, you, in all likelihood, were required to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (or FAFSA, for short). The FAFSA looks at what you or your family makes compared to the cost of the education you are seeking. If you are seeking an education from a regionally accredited college or university, filling out the FAFSA enables you to take out up to $12,500 in Federal Student Loans, and gives a recommendation for what your family should pay in total for schooling. Depending on the quality of the financial aid department of the school you are applying to, your school should provide you with a financial aid package that covers up to the full cost of tuition minus your expected family contribution.

Service And Merit Scholarships 

When talking about scholarships, individuals commonly mention that they’ve “earned” a scholarship. When talking about service and merit scholarships, this is certainly the case. 

In our next section, we’ll look at scholarships one can gain because of their demographics. That is, where one is born, what one’s biological sex is, or what ethnicity one is. 

In this section, we’ll take a look at scholarships that can be earned through past or future hard work and merit. 

Merit scholarships are what many traditionally think of when they think of scholarships. These scholarships are granted to individuals who prove excellence in one or many disciplines. These scholarships may be granted directly by a college or university or by third-party organizations, businesses, or governmental bodies.

Some of the most common types of merit scholarships include:

  • Activity-specific merit scholarships, such as athletics or arts scholarships
  • Academic scholarships, for particularly strong students
  • Community service scholarships, for individuals who have provided a noteworthy service to their community

Typically these scholarships are meant to incentivize particularly skilled students into attending a university and come with certain conditions that must be met in order to keep your scholarship.

For example, an activity-specific merit scholarship will likely stipulate that you can keep your scholarship for as long as you are active in a given sport or activity while at college. 

An academic scholarship will likely stipulate that you can keep your scholarship as long as you keep your grades above a certain level.

And a community service scholarship may have a stipulation that requires you to spend a certain amount of time performing community service-related activities in a given semester. 

Service scholarships are slightly different from merit scholarships. These scholarships often come with a stipulation that you will provide some sort of service (sort of like merit scholarships) while you obtain or after obtaining your degree. The main difference is that service scholarships often do not require past actions other than gaining entrance into an accredited college or university. Common examples of service scholarships include:

  • Military scholarships where individuals pledge to serve time in the military for each year they receive a scholarship
  • Teacher service scholarships where an individual pledges to work as an educator for a set amount of time for each year they receive a scholarship
  • Scholarships and financial aid packages at service colleges where an individual works while in college in exchange for scholarship money

Scholarships For Special Interests

Beyond choosing an affordable school, scholarships for “special interests” are perhaps the single largest opportunity for students to make college or university more affordable.

You may ask what we mean by “special interests.” Well, nothing really that obscure. Special interest scholarships are scholarships that are available to you based on some element of your demographics (personal information). 

Special interest scholarships are commonly provided by: 

  • Employers
  • Municipal, State, and Federal Government Organizations
  • Non-Profits
  • Foundations
  • And Individuals

And they aren’t just for rare special interest groups. By special interests, we truly mean demographic-based scholarships that can be awarded to: 

  • Students of a particular sex
  • Students of a particular ethnicity
  • Students from a particular location
  • Students who have worked for a specific organization
  • Students whose parents have worked for a specific organization
  • Students who are members of a club
  • Students with a particular interest
  • Students who are a particular religion
  • Students who want to study a particular discipline
  • And even students who just inquire about their scholarship (yes, there are some scholarships like this)

As you may have guessed, there are special interest scholarships for basically any type of student. Almost every county or city of size in America has special interest scholarships available for students from that location. Almost every major has special interest scholarships available for students studying within that discipline. Almost all national clubs (Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4H, etc.) offer scholarships for members. And there are scholarships available for every ethnicity, sex, and gender orientation. 

As there are so many scholarships that fit in this category, it’s definitely the single largest opportunity for students to lower their tuition costs (behind choosing an affordable school). It can also be one of the most overwhelming aspects of applying to school. That’s why the higher education research team here at OnlineCollegePlan has taken the time to present some of the most promising scholarships organized by field of study, some of which may be seen below:

Scholarships Vs. Other Types of Financial Aid

At the end of the day, there are many ways to fund a college education. Few individuals will gain 100% coverage of their collegiate costs by financial aid, and few individuals will have the money to cover 100% of their college costs outright. 

Unless you’re going to a school that is entirely free or a 100% need-met institution, you will likely have some combination of the following student financial aid elements:

There’s nothing wrong with any of these ways to pay for college, but there are some definite trade offs. Grants, scholarships, and work studies don’t require you to pay anything back after school. Though some scholarships do have a service component where you must work for several years in a field depending on how long you held the scholarship for. 

If you have the option to take grants, scholarships, or Federal work study program money, you should almost always do so. Loans are readily available for most college programs but should be a second or third choice whenever possible. 

The main choice many students face is trying to discern how much of their schooling they should pay for on their own, or through money they plan to earn through working, and how much they should take out in student loans. In this scenario, there are a number of trade-offs, including how much time you’re willing to devote to working instead of studying or other priorities, as well as how much debt you’re willing to take on. For students attending the most expensive schools and taking out student loans debt from school can be equal to that of a house (particularly for graduate school). So choosing to fund primarily through student loans should not be taken lightly. 

Among student loans, the largest difference is between Federal student loans and private student loans.

Federal student loans are typically made available through your financial aid package once you or a family member have filled out a FAFSA. There are a number of benefits to pursuing Federal student loans as the primary source of loan funding for your education. These include:

  • (Often) lower interest rates compared to private student loans
  • Protections for borrowers who can’t pay back their student loans
  • A variety of repayment plans
  • Loan forgiveness processes
  • Access to resources through which to learn about taking on “smarter” debt

Private student loans are also part of many students’ financial aid packages. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with private student loans. They just function much like loans taken out for other common purposes, like buying a car.

 Private loans may or may not have different repayment options, and will likely have no “forgiveness” or other ways out of the loan. In short, if you’re taking out private student loans be sure to understand what the costs of the loan are and be as sure as you can that you’ll be able to handle these costs for the foreseeable future.

What Else Can I Do To Lower the Cost of College?

Throughout our guide, we’ve covered a number of ways to lower the cost of your college education. To recap, below are some of the main ways you can make college at least somewhat more affordable:

  • Find a school that’s low-priced (or even free)
  • Seek out a need-met institution
  • Fill out your FAFSA to gain an idea of what you or your family’s expected contribution to the school will be
  • Dedicate time to finding a range of scholarships that you can apply for
  • Talk to the financial aid department at whatever schools you’re applying to
  • Seek out a part-time job or a work-study
  • Remember to continue to be on the lookout for scholarships throughout your schooling, as some are available to students within a certain year or who have started their course of study
  • Be sure to understand the differences in any loans you may have been offered
  • Be sure to understand what is expected of you in the event of a service scholarship

All of the processes above are things that you or your family have at least some control over. While financial aid departments at colleges and universities can be very helpful, it’s up to you to begin to take ownership of your financial future as you begin your schooling.

Of the above, the two elements that are most in your control include:

  • Choosing an affordable school
  • And seeking out a wide range of quality scholarships and applying to them

Remember that scholarships are offered by many, many types of entities. One of your parent’s employers (or your own) may offer scholarships. Civic organizations, professional organizations, clubs, religious bodies, and governmental organizations are also known to regularly provide scholarships. 

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