Finding the right financing for your college education is just as important as the admissions process. And while it may seem that taking out student loans is the easiest answer to covering your expenses, it is crucial to think about the long-term cost and repayment terms when planning for such a large investment. You may be taking the first steps towards a better career and a higher earning potential by attending one of the top rated online universities, but if handled poorly, this could leave you with heavy debt and financial hardship for years to come.

Recently, rising levels of student debt, combined with a weak job market, have sparked concern. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported that, as of March 2012, Americans had amassed $904 billion in student loan debt, an increase of 8% from the year before. Perpetually rising tuition costs are largely to blame for this upward trend. The Christian Science Monitor reported that from 1999 to 2009, tuition at public, four-year colleges rose 73%. At private, not-for-profit colleges, this number was 34%. Increasingly tighter budgets, especially for state-run schools, are likely to continue, leaving the prospect of lower tuition rates bleak. Even students enrolled at top ranked online universities, who typically enjoy lower tuition that those attending on-campus programs, need to be diligent with their financial planning in these tough economic times.

For this reason, students should take it upon themselves to make every effort in reducing the amount of debt they will have to take on during their college years. One of the best ways to do this is to apply for as many scholarships as possible, since this type of aid will not need to be repaid after graduation. Once you start researching your scholarship options, you may find you qualify for more than you expected — even enough to cover most of your tuition. If you are looking for a jumping off point, consider contacting your college’s financial aid office or high school counselor to set up a meeting to discuss tips for finding scholarships. Between now and your meeting, you can get a quick overview of scholarship options by reading this guide.

Narrowing Down Your Search

Scholarships come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are need-based and some are merit-based. Need-based scholarships are awarded depending on demonstrated financial need, while merit-based scholarships are earned through academic performance or athletic prowess. These are the two most common types of awards people think of when discussing scholarships. However, student- and career-specific scholarships are also prevalent. These are awarded to students of a certain race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or family or medical history or to students pursuing careers in certain fields.

Scholarships are also available from a variety of sources. Below we have outlined some options for where to start your search.

  • Your college: When you are comparing online colleges and universities, not only should you assess the total cost of tuition and fees, but also the availability of institutional aid. These scholarship funds come directly from the school and may be awarded based on financial need, merit, a student’s background, or chosen area of study. If you have a strong academic record, come from an underrepresented group, or are planning to pursue a career in a high-demand field, you may be eligible for scholarship. We recommend you check with the school’s financial aid office about the availability of these type of aid options.
  • Private organizations: Expanding your search beyond your school’s financial aid office is also likely to yield excellent results, as there are many private organizations willing to give money to students who fit their criteria and demonstrate worthiness. Sources for these type of scholarships may include:
    • Private businesses: Never underestimate a company’s desire for good publicity. Some offer money as part of community outreach programs, while others use it to encourage young people to enter the workforce in their field. In particular, Fortune 500 companies such as Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil, and Coca-Cola have been lauded for their generosity throughout the years.
    • Religious organizations: Always active in the community, religious organizations may make an effort to spread goodwill by assisting students with the cost of higher education. If you’re a member of a church or part of a youth group, then you may qualify for a scholarship. One example is the Faith & Education Scholarship Fund, which offers $10,000 to members of the Church of Christ who are attending, or plan on attending, a four-year liberal arts institution.
    • Military: Individuals who enlist in the military are eligible for a multitude of scholarships, as specified in the Montgomery GI Bill and the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Family members of military personnel may be eligible for assistance as well.
    • Other organizations: Non-profits, chambers of commerce, and unions are among the other organizations that offer scholarships to students.

Of course, as with any situation that involves finances, it is best to exercise caution. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns students and their families of scholarship scams, providing resources to ensure you don’t fall victim to them. Beware of telltale signs, such as claims that “the scholarship is guaranteed or your money back.” A little common sense can save you a lot of trouble down the road.

Coming out a Winner

Merit-based awards are competitive in nature, and you will likely be one of many students hoping to get a piece of the pie. That means you must meet the minimum standards specified by the organization granting the scholarship. If you fall just short of the minimum GPA requirement, for example, you will likely be wasting your time submitting an application. Instead, file it away and try again the next application period after your grades have risen.

You may be prompted to submit entrance exam scores, complete a project related to your major, or write an essay. The latter two require making time and putting forth a solid effort before the scholarship deadline approaches. Treat it as you would an important class project and pay close attention to the details. Also, plan ahead — you don’t want to push past the deadline. This could hurt your ability to put forth the best application and, in some rare cases, organizations give priority to the first applicants. Below are a few tips for common application components:

  • Essay: If you aren’t already accustomed to writing flawless essays — either from the admissions process or your college classes — then you can read these tips from U.S. News & World Report. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to writing a scholarship essay, since no two prompts or audiences are exactly the same.
  • Letter of recommendation: The person you ask to write your letter of recommendation should meet three requirements: they like you, they are able to discuss things you’ve accomplished, and they are a strong writer. In most cases, a teacher or professor should suffice. You can read over these tips from the Illinois Department of Employment Security.
  • Interview: Many organizations like to interview their applicants to decide if they meet the criteria of a student they wish to support. While you should always strive to be yourself, it is important to practice for your interview. So find some common scholarship interview questions, like these, sit down with your friends or family, and have them help you prepare.

In addition to acing your essay and interview, don’t forget to pay close attention to the application itself. Treat it like a resume for a job. Do not make errors and do not leave out any information. Imperfections can cause automatic elimination when organizations receive a high number of applicants.

The disbursement terms and other requirements for scholarships can vary, so it is important to understand them fully when planning for the cost of college. Some are only a one-time payment, where others can be renewed yearly. Merit-based scholarships may rely on your high school GPA before you have college course work under your belt, but then become dependent on your academic performance in college. Therefore, if you want to maintain your scholarships throughout your college career, it’s essential that you continue to perform well as a student, justifying your worthiness for the award.


As you may have gathered by now, finding scholarships is a long and complicated process, but it doesn’t have to be painful. In fact, there are a number of databases that provide prospective students with comprehensive lists of scholarships to help them manage the cost of attending some of the best online universities. These databases include:

  • Fastweb: By simply entering your email address they will send you lists of scholarships that fit with your profile. And with a database of more than 1.5 million scholarships worth an estimated $3.4 billion, there are numerous options.
  • CollegeBoard: This scholarship search service isn’t quite as extensive as Fastweb, but still offers access to 2,300 sources worth $3 billion in aid.
  • This is a great resource for veterans and their families. Just fill out a short form and will find the scholarships for which you might be eligble.
  • U.S. News & World Report: You may have used this website to research top online colleges, and now you can use it to find scholarships. It’s another extensive database from a reliable site.

There are several other national scholarship databases, though they are less well-known. It doesn’t hurt to take the time to peruse those as well. Also, be sure to search any state scholarship databases that may exist for your area where you live, or the area of your college. Keep in mind, local scholarships tend to be awarded locally.

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