It’s almost March, and that means there are only two months left before parents of 2012 high school seniors will have to plunk down a deposit at Top Choice U.   And with skyrocketing tuition, a sluggish economy, and record-level college debt, many will use this time to hunt down private scholarships.  Unfortunately, they’ll be facing some pretty long odds: in any given year, a scant 6.9%, or about 14.5-to-1 of the undergraduates who apply for private scholarships actually receive anything at all.  In fact, private scholarship money  represents less than  2% of the total that’s available for financial aid (through the government and the colleges themselves). 

What’s worse — in their desperation, many will fall prey to scholarship scams and unscrupulous financial aid providers.  The Federal Trade Commission estimates that parents lose more than $100 million to scholarship scams every year (that’s $250.00 a day). 

To avoid becoming a victim , follow these safe search guidelines:

1. Steer clear of any companies that require an advance fee to do a scholarship search. Instead, start with a FREE, reputable online scholarship search such as Fastweb, or borrow a scholarship book that is less than one year old.

2. Never provide information about your bank account, social security number etc. in response to an unsolicited  (or any) sholarship offer.  Some swindlers (cleverly disguised as legitimate companies) will send out information to your student indicating that they’ve been selected as a ‘finalist’ for an award and request additional information to ‘confirm eligibility.’  You should NEVER have to provide this type of  information for a private scholarship search.

3. Watch out for any company that ‘guarantees’ that you will win a scholarship.  Any claim or guarantee I have ever seen or reviewed came with impossible conditions and have turned out to be a scam.

4. Check with your, your spouse’s and even your parents’ employers.  Many have scholarships that nobody knows about because they’ve never asked and never been aggressively marketed.

5. Apply wisely.  You don’t have much time so increase your odds by casting a narrow net.  You may have a better shot at applying for less cometitive local scholarships than more widely publicized national programs.

Although it may be too late for many of my 2012 readers, when it comes to slashing the college bill, you should focus less time on the 2% of private scholarship money referenced above and much more of your effort on the other 98% available through federal and institutional discounts.  From now until the summer (and sometimes beyond then) I will probably get a call at least once a day from parents in desperate need of help to pay the looming college bill.   Often the only available response at this point is:  ‘Oh Crap’ – here’s a family with a great student that just waited too long.  Which stinks because more than likely, if they had started their planning process earlier (i.e., had their child apply to schools with money to give, positioned him or her to be in the top 25% of some of those schools and re-allocated their non-exempt assets) they may have qualified for both merit and federal-based scholarships and grants to help offset these costs.

I’m often asked “when should you really begin college planning and funding process?”  My response:  Now!  Or, at the latest in 10th or 11th grade, or at the very latest, at the same time that students are beginning their admissions preparation.  So, If you’re the parent of a high school student with questions about where the legitimate college money is, please come to one of my free classes.   I’ll be at Sagemont School, Upper Campus tomorrow (Wednesday, Feb 22), where I’ll be sharing many of the tips and advice that I’ve personally used to help almost 1,000 South Florida families make college affordable again.  It’s free, pitch-free, and almost completely full.  Click here to reserve your seat now. 

Best,

Peter Ratzan

p.s. One final note:  if you believe you are the victim of a scholarship scam, notify the FTC immediately.  They will put you in touch with their education fraud division to assist you.

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