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10 Tips to Find Free Money for College

Don't let the scholarship process overwhelm you. Many resources are right here in Golden Valley.

Gas this week is at $3.60 a gallon, tax day is looming, and my car’s check engine light is on... again.

Now that my daughter is headed to college next year, the thought of finding a way to afford it is downright overwhelming.  But then I consider this - spending a little time finding just one scholarship now could mean saving her thousands of dollars in loans after graduation.

If you're like my daughter and me, and you're willing to put in the time, the obvious question is, "Where do I start?"

To answer that and a myriad of other questions, I looked no further than the guidance offices at Robbinsdale Cooper and Robbinsale Armstrong high schools to come up with a list of ten tips.

1) Turn in Your FAFSA ASAP.

Before you do anything, make sure you work on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.  This application is now completely online, and most families can finish all the required steps within 45 minutes. 

FAFSA identifies students for financial aid packages specific to the colleges of their choice, but also helps determine work-study options, grant qualifications and low interest loan possibilities. 

As soon as parents know what their 2010 taxable income is, they should get to work on the FAFSA. 

2) Students: Make the time.

“Too many students see applying for scholarships as another homework assignment," says Armstong’s Jamie Dukowitz.
"But the majority of them are not that difficult to fill out.”

In fact, some local scholarships in particular may not get the applicants they need, and money that was available goes unclaimed.  Many have relatively short applications and may not even require an essay. 

3) Look for local scholarships before going national.

“Local scholarships tend to be easier to get," says Dukowitz.  "Your odds go down on national [scholarships].”   

At the career centers in both Armstrong and Cooper, students can access Family Connections.  This online site lists scholarships specifically for local students and highlights local businesses and clubs looking for applicants—including some from right here in Golden Valley.

4) Check with family employers and place of worship.

Whether you're a parent or student who works part-time, check with your employer to see if scholarship money is available.  Millions of dollars put aside for employee scholarships and education go unused by companies every year in the U.S. 

Some places of worship also offer assistance for their members, and your church or temple might not advertise this.  So don't be afraid to ask.

5) Don’t pay for scholarship search services.

All the financial aid representatives I spoke with agree: if a student is diligent enough to put in a little time and effort, scholarship search services are not necessary.  Much of the information you'll find on these websites is available in your school's guidance counselor's office or career center.

6) Check out credible and free website searches.

Cooper’s Katie Burkholder recommends the following websites for free search options when looking for college money:

www.collegenet.com
www.collegeview.com
http://www.getreadyforcollege.org/mnscholarships

7) Earn college credit before going to college.

Students should take full advantage of college credit options while still in high school.  With Advanced Placement, IB or other post-secondary options, students usually only pay for exams.  That cost is well below the tuition cost of an entry-level course at any college or university.

8) Check out the scholarships your college or university offers.

Most colleges offer scholarships to students in a particular field of study.  To find out what your college or univeristy offers, start with the financial aid section of their website.

Some of these scholarships are merit-based (academic qualifications), others are need-based (financial qualifications), and the remainder vary from those awarded to specific majors to those based on ethnicity or athletic ability.  Many students are surprised to find the amount and variety of scholarships available with a little searching on their future college website.

9) Think outside the standard, four-year plan.

In light of the current economy, many students are now going to two-year schools and then transferring to larger universities.  Many are dividing their college years between public and private schools.

Students may want to explore military tuition payment options or tuition reimbursement from an employer in order to start their higher education on a part-time basis.

“If grades and activities are there," Dukowitz says, "the fruits of that labor will pay off, and it will be worth their time.”

10) Stand out and start building your resume early.

Starting in 9th grade, students should look for ways to stand out from their peers on scholarship applications.  This can include volunteer work, part-time employment, social clubs, extra-curricular activities and summer enrichment. 

Dukowitz suggests parents and students check out upcoming local summer enrichment opportunities at the Get Ready for College website.

Share your ideas with others.

How are you paying for college?  Join in the discussion on our Facebook page.  Maybe you've got an idea for a Golden Valley family, or maybe they've got one for you.

Lance Matthews March 12, 2011 at 07:26 PM
This is a terrific resource to help parents and college students find ways to help pay for college in a tough economy.
Gail Weinhold March 13, 2011 at 03:03 PM
Thanks for the comment Lance! I agree that this economy has made paying for higher education especially challenging.
Mary Costello March 17, 2011 at 09:17 PM
Great information, Gail! You're right, there's a LOT of local money available... you just have to look. I visited the Twin West Chamber of Commerce gala on Friday night, and after talking with the president, I learned that they make $25,000 available every year for college students, and thousands for adults going back to school. Check out their website: http://www.twinwest.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=150&Itemid=205

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