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College Scholarships Abound, Along With Millions in Unclaimed Federal Aid

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Most scholarships go unclaimed because the criteria are too strict.

Did you know you could get a college scholarship for being tall

Or if you can make an amazing peanut butter sandwich?

There's even a $10,000 prize for a high school couple that makes a pair of unforgettable prom outfits with duct tape.

"I think particularly for scholarship programs that are less well-known, they exist and they're just waiting for somebody to apply," said Terri Taylor, an advisor with Education Counsel, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm.

"So I think going out of your way to look for some of those hidden jewels -- particularly if you feel you may be less competitive for some of the scholarships that maybe are better known," she said.

As costs for college continue to rise, so is student debt. Students graduated this year with an average of over $37,000 in debt -- a six percent increase over last year, according to Student Loan Hero. So more students are looking for different ways to help pay for school. 

Most scholarships go unclaimed because the criteria are too strict. Taylor says that's because some scholarships were set up decades ago. These are often smaller awards, like $2,000 or less.

But it's easier to get the smaller scholarships because fewer people apply, said David Levy, editor at Edvisors, a group that helps students and parents figure out college costs.

"One of the things we always encourage students to do, is to make sure that they apply for as many scholarships as possible -- but only apply for those for which they're eligible,” he said.

He suggested that students start looking for scholarships before their senior year, and to pay close attention to the eligibility criteria before applying. And triple check the application before submitting.

Here are a few common pitfalls, according to Levy:

  1. Missing the deadline. “They don’t necessarily proofread the application as well as they should.”
  2. Failure to follow directions. Students should pay attention to number of recommendations requested, and be careful to not omit required information.
  3. Essays. Make sure the length is correct, and also make sure “you’re writing an essay that doesn’t offend the reviewer.”
  4. Eligibility. Many students “apply for a scholarship for which they don’t qualify, or they don't apply for a scholarship for which they are eligible.”

Here’s are some suggestions for students looking to graduate from college debt-free:

  1. Check with high school counselor. Check bulletin board for local scholarships. Look in the library’s jobs and careers section.
  2. Corporations often advertise scholarships at the bottom of coupons. “Take a look in the Sunday newspaper,” Levy said.
  3. Take some initiative. “Nobody’s gonna come knocking on the student’s door and say: here’s a scholarship."
  4. Prioritize applications by deadline date and expected value of the scholarship. Set up a calendar. Create an accomplishments resume.

There's also need-based financial aid, called the Pell Grant. This is federal money that doesn't have to be repaid. Connecticut students missed out on over $20 million in federal aid money in 2014 -- that's because either students didn't apply for financial aid, or messed up during the application process. Nationwide, NerdWallet estimated that $2.7 billion in Pell Grant money went unused in 2014.

Studies show that scholarship winners are more likely to graduate, and students who graduate college without debt are more likely to go to graduate school.

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.
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