So…Do You Help Us Find Scholarships, Too?
Living and working as an Independent Educational Consultant (IEC) in Georgia, a state with a robust “merit” scholarship program (HOPE/Zell Miller), I have been surprised to find that many families do not budget for the cost of a four-year residential college even though they expect their children to attend one. While I saw these concerns a lot as a public school counselor, I thought as an IEC I would have fewer conversations with families about the cost of college. I thought most parents would understand that in America, the family is expected to contribute what they can to the cost of college. However, I quickly found that is often not the case. Many parents believe, with the state “merit” program, that college is “free,” not realizing they are still on the hook for $10-18k/year, depending on the school and their student’s living situation. When that realization hits, usually fall of Senior year, families flock to me with one question: “Do you help us find scholarships?”
This question always gives me pause, and I wonder what, if any, is my role as an IEC. I certainly don’t believe that someone should pay a person to “win” money for them, nor do I want to spend hours upon hours digging through thousands of options to discover a handful of opportunities that the student or family may reject out of hand. However, I know a significant part of my job is to help my families find colleges that are a financial fit as well as an academic and social one. After much consideration, I’ve determined the three roles that I must take on as an Independent Educational Consultant when it comes to the search for scholarships. So, when families ask if I help them find scholarships, I tell them that I will help educate them on the process, ask them to expand the student’s college list, and encourage the student to apply for scholarship opportunities.
At the heart of our jobs, we are educators. Our clients count on us to cut through the noise to find the truth. We constantly dispel myths about admissions, and we must do the same regarding “merit” aid. We need to educate our families on what so-called merit scholarships actually are: a recruitment tool to convince students to enroll at a specific institution. A school that routinely turns away 90% of its applicants does not need to persuade students to enroll, and as such, the most highly selective colleges and universities rarely award “merit” aid.
Before we begin to build a college list, I am brutally honest with families looking for this type of assistance, since I believe financial fit is crucial. These are often hard conversations, especially if parents don’t want to be transparent about their financial circumstances. To help, I lay out the statistics from colleges they bring up in the conversation – the percentage of students receiving merit aid and the average merit award – since we must consider these stats together. Just as I would not simply look at the mid-50% to determine academic fit without looking at the overall admit rate, so too must we acknowledge it is a reach when a school only awards merit aid to 4% of students no matter how generous the average package for that 4% might be. I give them real stories of students that I’ve seen receive awards from some schools, students who didn’t receive merit from other schools, and changes I’ve seen from year to year.
If a family is not willing or able to pay the full cost of attendance and I know a school does not offer many or any merit awards, I won’t put that school on the student’s list. Sometimes parents are frustrated since their student “worked too hard” to go to a “less prestigious” school, or they think their student could make the school “change their mind,” but I think it is important to face these realities at the beginning of the process rather than facing heartbreak at the end when the student is admitted to a school they cannot actually afford.
Since a student’s best shot of receiving merit is at a place where they are in the top 25% of applicants, students in search of scholarship support often have to expand their search. This requires education on my part, to know the schools that are generous towards students at all different academic levels. For example, I have spent a lot of time researching schools that award merit scholarships to “B” students in the South, since I work with a number of students with B averages who hope to stay in the Southeast for college. I have had to uncover “hidden gems” and outline specific reasons why a school would be a good fit in order to convince families to look beyond their initial list. For example, I have discovered several schools in Tennessee, Kentucky, and South Carolina that offer automatic in-state tuition to Georgia students.
In the last few years, I have found families are more receptive to schools that are transparent with their award amounts, like those in Alabama and Missouri. Parents like to see a matrix that lays out exactly what kind of award their student could receive based on their grades and test scores. I find those hard and fast numbers can also encourage a student to work a little harder in a tough class or give the SAT or ACT one more try. I dig deeper to find unique opportunities at these schools since they may be places parents would not otherwise consider. I research new schools every month, even if I’m not actively working on college lists, and I ask questions about the financials when I am visiting with college representatives. We always tell our families to look beyond the rankings, yet sometimes, even as IECs, we only focus on the same 50 or so schools. If my job is to expand a student’s horizon, then I must first start by expanding my own.
We cannot rely on historical data and patterns alone, essential as they are in guiding families. Admissions is unpredictable work that has been turned even more on its head by COVID-19. And I expect we may be in for even more surprises before this admission cycle is through. Even still, there are some good rules of thumb to follow, like encouraging students to apply to one financial reach, as long as they have several financial likelies and targets on their list as well. I’ve seen some colleges drastically reduce their merit aid over the years while others are continuing to increase their awards due to concerns about enrollment. I also encourage those families who are especially cost-conscious to look for outside scholarships, starting as underclassmen and continuing after applications are submitted.
I encourage students to start their search locally. When I was a school counselor, we had several organizations who sought to recognize a stand-out student from our school. Very few students applied overall, and I even recall some awards to which only one student applied. Discover even more shallow pools of applicants through a parent’s work, utility companies, banks, and community organizations. Additionally, websites like Going Merry, Scholly, Unigo, The University Network, and even Pinterest can help students find outside awards.
Finding “merit” scholarships can be a daunting task, so defining your role early with families is essential. Each IEC will have their own answer to the question, “Do you help us find scholarships?” For my own part, I have committed to beginning with education – for myself and my families – to help expand the consideration lists, and I encourage my IEC colleagues to do the same.
Allison Grandits is the owner and founder of Grand Fit Educational Consulting. Working with high school students for five years as a public school counselor helped fuel her passion for college admissions. Allison’s goal is to minimize the stress associated with the college application process by helping families identify the factors that matter most to them through the GRAND Fit method.