High school seniors across the country are walking across stages to the beat of "Pomp and Circumstance," with visions of their exciting futures racing through their heads. If you're heading off to college, you have been focused on grades, college and scholarship applications, and financial aid.
Soon enough, the heady rush of college preparation will turn into the hectic everyday life of a student. Between studying, socializing, and adjusting to life on your own, it's easy to forget about all the work you put into paying for your education—especially if you received grants or scholarships to cover your first year's tuition. But for many students, single-year scholarships means their freshman year's full ride turns into a sophomore struggle to stay in school.
[Get more advice on how to pay for college.]
To keep this from happening to you, it's important to stay on top of two things:
1. First and foremost are your college and government financial aid deadlines, which vary by state as well as for freshmen versus upperclassmen; the FAFSA website is a crucial resource for keeping an eye on that information.
2. Just as important are renewable scholarships. Receiving an award for your freshman year is a great honor, but scholarships that are renewable, or that target upperclassmen, can help ensure that your "financial aid gap" stays closed.
The wide majority of renewable aid that you'll find will come directly from your college, and sometimes even from your academic major/department. This is especially true with aid for juniors and seniors who are well into their pursuit of a major. It's never too early to become familiar with all there is to know about your school's financial aid office: where to find it, who to talk to, how to let them know your situation, and when your major deadlines are. Schools want to make sure students take advantage of this assistance, so there's usually quite a bit of info out there if you look; Purdue University, to pick one example, provides a nice overview of its university-wide scholarships and its department-specific awards.
Most school-provided aid for upperclassmen falls into the category of "merit scholarships," and to renew or re-apply, you'll almost always need to meet some significant performance benchmarks. On the plus side, those benchmarks are sometimes all you need. At Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., for example, students need only meet the criteria listed for the schoolwide merit scholarships and they'll automatically receive the appropriate aid. This isn't always the case, though, so make sure to familiarize yourself early each year with the necessary criteria, deadlines, and extra steps.
[Read 8 rules for maximizing merit aid.]
Several great renewable scholarships are open to current high-school students, and you should be aware of them now if you'll be heading back to high school in the fall. The Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, which we've mentioned before in this blog, provides more than 1,000 four-year renewable scholarships to eligible high school students each year. The National Merit Scholarship program provides a variety of different awards—including both corporate- and college-sponsored four-year renewable awards—to its 15,000 or so finalists.
There are two major things to keep in mind about the National Merit program:
1. Every college handles National Merit aid differently, and an application that might mean a four-year scholarship at one school may qualify you for much less at another; research your prospective schools and designate a "first choice" college accordingly. 2. This is an easy program to miss out on, because eligibility requires taking the PSAT/National Merit qualifying test by at least your junior year of high school or the equivalent.
You can also find renewable assistance through both athletic and military-service scholarships—but, here again, there are some important details. In the athletic realm, NCAA regulations mean that maintenance of your award will require you to meet certain academic guidelines, and may also require re-application, evaluation of your on-field contributions, or both. Your best bet is to speak with both your coach and your financial aid office to find out exactly what's required to keep you in school and on the team.
[Get more information about college scholarships.]
Similarly, while ROTC enrollment and the GI Bill can pay for a huge portion of your college education, you can't just walk into your recruitment office and walk out with a paid-for degree. ROTC scholarships, available via all branches of the U.S. military, are both generous and renewable, but the service commitment ranges from four to eight years of active duty as a commissioned officer, and standards are rigorous. The GI Bill provides generous assistance for enlisted men and women, and should figure into your plans heavily if you're thinking of the military before college, but it also only offers 36 months of tuition payments.
It takes planning, focus, and effort to get into college and pay for that first year, and it takes just as much to ensure that you're set up for success the rest of the way.
Matt Konrad has been with Scholarship America since 2005. He is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota and a former scholarship recipient.