Back in my freshman and sophomore years of high school, most of my friends started getting part-time jobs. The hours usually weren't great and the rewards weren't that glamorous (the used car my friend Joe bought with his pizza-place earnings ended up costing more in repairs than he ever made), but it seemed like a pretty awesome, grown-up thing to do, and I wanted to join them.
My dad, a high school teacher, advised against it. His theory was that devoting my time to school, extracurricular activities, and financial aid research—rather than to a part-time job—would end up being more lucrative in the long run. As far as my education went, he was right. Music, speech, and academics wound up paying off for me in both private and institutional scholarship aid, and helped shape my college experience as well.
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While I'd recommend the same strategy for any high school student, it's not always feasible. For many of you, and for many reasons, summer or after-school jobs are often a necessity. Fortunately, they can end up paying off in the form of scholarships—especially if your employer offers college assistance.
Employer assistance usually falls into one of two camps. There are scholarships for employees—pretty straightforward—and then there's employee "tuition assistance" or "tuition reimbursement," in which the employer provides you a sum of money to pay for any qualified education costs (typically, this doesn't involve a competitive application like most scholarships do). Perhaps the best-known of these reimbursement plans is the UPS Earn and Learn program, in which all part-time employees at 51 eligible UPS locations can receive up to $3,000 per year ($4,000 for part-time management staff) toward their education. (UPS also has relationships with colleges in Louisville and the Chicagoland area that provide full or nearly full tuition benefits, but the hours and locations are more restrictive.) If you're willing to put in some potentially long hours between school and work, the Earn and Learn program could fund a good chunk of your tuition.
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A number of other employers offer similar tuition reimbursement plans. The Publix grocery store chain, notably, provides tuition benefits to employees who work as few as 10 hours a week. Starbucks and Target also feature tuition reimbursement as benefits, and even if you decide to work at a small or local business, you might be able to find some assistance. Studies have estimated that up to 80 percent of employers offer some kind of tuition benefit, and even if your job doesn't qualify, it's something you should ask in any interview. (Find out if there are any obligations attached, too!)
When it comes to scholarships for employees, the most far-reaching and wide-ranging opportunity is via the Burger King Scholars Program, sponsored by the company's Have It Your Way Foundation. Employees of Burger King franchises across the nation are eligible to apply for $1,000 scholarships, and there are also several $5,000 regional awards and one $25,000 national award available to those winners. The application period typically opens in early November, so check the eligibility guidelines and turn those drive-thru shifts into college cash.
Similarly, Lowe's stores have scholarship programs open to all full- and part-time associates; its Carl Buchan Scholarship is limited to employees and their dependents, and provides 50 $5,000 scholarships across the country. And, just like with tuition assistance programs, you can see benefits from local or smaller businesses, too. The Dick's Drive In chain in Seattle has just a handful of locations, but student employees who work there throughout college can earn up to $18,000 in college funding.
And, last but not least, if you've already headed off to college and are looking for work during the school year, your first stop should be the work-study office. The hourly pay may not quite measure up to your summer job, especially if you've been working at it for a few years, but work-study positions frequently feature additional benefits that may help with room, board, or living expenses alongside tuition.
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In short, whether or not you make scholarship-hunting your full time job, there are still opportunities out there to close the gaps in your education funding.
Matt Konrad has been with Scholarship America since 2005. He is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota and a former scholarship recipient.