Pay for College Using Your Student’s Skills and Abilities

Published by Wendy Nelson on

MoneyLast week, I talked about understanding how much you can afford to and want to pay for your child’s college education in the post, “Parents: Do This Before Your Student Starts the College Search.”  I said I would talk about exploring need-based and merit-based aid as “Step 6” in the process.  Since these are both big topics, I am going to focus on merit-based aid this week, along with other types of talent and skill based aid.  This will include:

  • Athletic Scholarships
  • Talent Scholarships
  • Merit Scholarships/Grants

Private Scholarships

Yes, there are plenty of private scholarships to apply for out there and many will apply to your student’s skills and talents, but competition is steep and the dollar amounts are usually low compared to what your student can receive directly from schools.  My advice is this:  Don’t go into the college search planning on any private scholarships.  Rather, use private scholarships at the end of the process as a nice “bonus.”

Athletic Scholarships

Many articles have been written to warn parents of the dangers of counting on athletic scholarships.  If you have a very talented athlete, there’s nothing wrong with trying for athletic scholarships.  My advice:

  1. Don’t count on an athletic scholarship to pay for college.  Have a back-up plan.
  2. Do your homework.  The NCSA and NCAA sites are a great place to start, but are definitely in favor of going through the recruiting process.  Make sure you also read up on the negatives.
  3. Discuss how much your child wants to play college sports.  Is it more for the love of the sport and just getting to be on a team or are you really just hoping for a “free ride” for college?
  4. For those who are truly in it for the experience, discuss the option of Division 3 schools.  While these schools don’t give athletic scholarships, they may offer your student a nice merit scholarships if they really want him/her on the team.  The competition level for getting on a team will be lower.

Merit Scholarships & Grants

Here is your biggest source of non-need based aid for college.  As I explain in my post, Finding Great Merit Scholarships, there are different methods for schools to assess what students deserve merit scholarships.  Some use a straight forward grid approach where higher GPAs and ACT/SAT scores lead to higher merit awards.  Others use a more subjective approach of assessing the student as a whole.  Often, leadership experience and community service are considered.

You may be able to get a decent idea of how much a school will award your student based on his/her GPA and test scores by using the school’s Net Price Calculator.  Some schools include this component on their calculators, but others only base their calculators on financial need.

My Tips:

  • Go to the websites for schools your student may be interested in and read up on their scholarship offerings.  Some schools make these easy to find and others do not.  If you can’t find this, try typing “Scholarships” in the site’s Search field.
  • Try out the schools’ Net Price Calculators to see if they provide a figure for potential merit aid.
  • If you need a better idea on merit aid than what you find online, an admissions counselor would be your next step.  It’s always better to have your student connect with a counselor, than you as a parent, but early in the process, they expect to get questions from parents.  They can talk you through merit scholarships they offer and where they think your student will fall best on his or her statistics.
  • Decide whether you need to limit your kid’s college search to schools where he/she has the best potential for large merit scholarships.
  • If your child has a solid idea of what he or she wants to study, check into departmental scholarship offerings.  Many schools award scholarships to students who declare specific majors.  These may be listed on the school website, but if you don’t find any, this is a good question for an admissions counselor or department chair.
  • It may be worth checking into full-ride and full-tuition scholarships if your student has a strong GPA and strong ACT or SAT score.  I have compiled an extensive list of these opportunities in my Full Scholarship List.

Talent Scholarships

Does your child have a particular talent like music, dance, or art?  Or maybe something more unique?  Search for “talent scholarships” on the school websites.  These are usually smaller amounts (unless the school specializes in these programs), maybe $1,000 – $5,000, but many schools will let a student combine a merit scholarship and a talent scholarship.  Some schools offer some pretty unique talent scholarships.  Unfortunately, there is no easy way to find these.  You really have to search directly on the school websites.

A merit, talent, or athletic scholarship offering is really an expression of how much a school wants your student.  If you really shop around, there is a good chance that your student will find one or more schools that highly value his or her particular mix of skills, qualities, interests and talents.


Katie · May 6, 2014 at 8:29 pm

I appreciate this article, and think it gives parents a good idea how to go about researching financial aid. I would add that the financial aid counselors at the institutions you’re considering are there to help you, and they are a great resource for navigating this (often confusing) process.

I do think there is some misleading information in this post, in regard to athletic scholarships.

It says, “[…D]iscuss the option of Division 3 schools. While these schools don’t give athletic scholarships, they may offer your student a nice merit scholarship if they really want him/her on the team.”

This simply is not accurate. Division III schools are prohibited (by NCAA rules) from offering any type of scholarship to a student for athletic performance or participation. If a student receives a merit scholarship from a Division III school, it is because his/her grades, test scores and college prep curriculum warranted it, NOT because the school wanted him/her as an athlete.

    Wendy Nelson · May 8, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    Katie, thank you for your feedback. I understand what you are saying, especially the NCAA rules. I don’t want to stir up anything, but from talking to college coaches and counselors, I have received the impression that for a very good student, it is possible to get a bump in merit amount for a desirable athlete. That may be all talk, but merit amounts do tend to be very subjective at many schools. One phone call can often lead to a substantial increase in a merit scholarship amount if the school really wants the student. That’s the key, I think – if the school really wants the student. They do not have to prove “why.”

    My wording in the article does leave too much room for interpretation. I should have said, “For a student with the right grades and test scores to begin with, a school may have more incentive to offer a higher merit scholarship to a desirable athlete.”

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