4/25/2013 - Joan Catherine Ryan found out life can hit hard and suddenly. Ryan, a single mother, had all her financial ducks in a row, all set, presumably, to pay for her daughter’s college education, when things suddenly fell apart.
In a period of just a few years, the Seacoast resident discovered she had breast cancer, was diagnosed with meningitis, had spinal surgery and ultimately was left disabled and jobless. All of that savings and planning suddenly had to go toward putting a roof over her family’s head and food on the table.
“I was desperate, and I had no money,” Ryan said. “Now what was I going to do?”
She didn’t sit around. She got to work. And she figured out how to pay for college, despite her limited resources.
“I learned how to research scholarships,” Ryan said.
Ryan was so successful in figuring out the scholarship system, she recently wrote a book, Scholarship Matters: A Parent’s Guide to College and Private Scholarships, which details the planning it takes to secure thousands of dollars’ worth of scholarships. And, by the way, she was able to send her daughter to college.
What she found was that there are lots and lots of scholarship opportunities for students. The catch is that many of them had explicit documentation requirements for eligibility, documentation that was a little more time-consuming and difficult to get a hold of than she’d expected. She found in some cases that her daughter couldn’t apply for certain scholarships, even though she was eligible, simply because she couldn’t procure the documentation needed to prove eligibility.
The American Legion was a good example, she said. There are about 50 different types of scholarships from the Legion, but they all require specific proof. Ryan’s daughter was eligible for a particular scholarship because Ryan’s father had served in the Navy during World War II, but she couldn’t prove it, since she didn’t have the discharge papers.
“It taught me a very important lesson that you need to prepare the eligibility documentation way, way, way ahead of time,” Ryan said.
Start with a birth certificate. Ryan discovered the birth certificate she’d been using her whole life wasn’t even her official birth certificate. Make sure you have the official, city hall birth certificate for yourself and your child. The hospital certificate or the church certificate won’t cut it, she said.
Ryan passed on her experience to her neighbors. She began counseling others on how to find and apply for scholarships, as well as how to make sure applicants had everything they needed in order to apply.
The ideal scenario would be that parents start planning early. Ryan suggests beginning the process in September of a child’s sixth-grade school year. She says to set aside one hour per week to begin acquiring one document at a time. Treat it like an at-home course and schedule the block of time each week, she said.
Ryan said people say there are millions of scholarship opportunities, but that’s incredibly overwhelming. People hear “millions” and they become intimidated, even fearful of the process, she said.
Starting early “takes ... that emotional roller coaster out of it,” Ryan said.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve heard families in total frustration because they bring home a whole bunch of scholarship applications to read through, but then they don’t have this or that and they don’t have the time to get the paper, so they can’t fill it out,” Ryan said. “They get frustrated and they throw their hands up in despair. It’s an emotional time.”
Ryan’s book features a questionnaire, which targets about 17 different scholarship areas. Each answer relates to a place to look for scholarships, including things like military and ancestry.
“Your goal is to find as many countries in your background as possible, because there are scholarships for so many countries,” Ryan said. “But you need to be able to prove that your great-great-grandparents came from those countries.”
Ryan isn’t promising people they’ll rake in thousands upon thousands of dollars in scholarships, but she is providing a blueprint for how to be ready for the application process.
No free rides
For a very small number of students, scholarships can provide that proverbial “free ride,” but for everybody else, college costs money. And scholarships can help ease the financial burden, but people shouldn’t be expecting to apply for a few scholarships and have their education paid for.
Rich Neilsen, a college outreach specialist with the New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation, said scholarships can certainly be helpful when it comes to paying for college, but he cautioned that they typically are not sizable enough to do more than supplement a financial aid package. He said external scholarships are usually about $1,000 to $2,000 each and they can typically only be used in the first year.
“Families just have to be aware of that,” Neilsen said.
Frequently, college scholarships are awarded late in the college application process, so late that students and families have probably already made their decision on which college they will attend.
“The decision is not based on whether or not they get a scholarship,” Nielsen said. “But it is a supplement for whatever the bill is.”
For the most part, scholarships will not reduce a student’s financial aid package; they simply add to the package. If a financial aid package were to decrease due to a scholarship, it would normally be limited to “self-help” aid, such as decreasing loan amounts or decreasing work study commitments, Nielsen said.
Nielsen said NHHEAF encourages students to look locally for scholarships first. National scholarships with big corporations, like Best Buy, Burger King or Coca-Cola, have greater dollar amounts to offer, but they also have more widespread competition.
“So the likelihood of receiving those is far lower,” Nielsen said. “The best bang for your buck and for your effort is to stay local.”
A lot of high schools post local scholarship opportunities on their websites. Guidance counselors would also be well-versed in which local scholarships are available, Nielsen said.