Every dollar you earn in scholarship and grant money is a dollar you don't have to borrow.
That's a point Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Fastweb.com and FinAid.org, makes as he offers advice to students trying to find scholarships in his new book released this week, "Secrets to Winning a Scholarship."
The book pulls together valuable strategies developed by Mr. Kantrowitz, of Cranberry, a nationally recognized expert in financial aid.
The book also provides "top 10" lists, including unusual scholarships, scholarships that don't require an A and scholarships for children age 13 and under.
First, the odds, calculated by Mr. Kantrowitz:
When it comes to full-time students at four-year schools, only 0.3 percent received enough grants and scholarships -- both need-based and nonneed-based -- to cover all of the cost of attendance in 2007-08. About 14 percent received enough to cover more than half of the cost.
Scholarships and grants can come from as variety of sources -- federal and state government grants, the school itself and private organizations.
Of the full-time students at four-year colleges who won private scholarships, two-thirds used less than $2,500 of the awards. Private scholarships do not include college-controlled awards or government aid.
Overall, fewer than 20,000 students a year nationwide receive enough grants -- counting all types -- to cover all costs.
Only a small portion of them -- fewer than 250 nationwide -- win a single private scholarship that provides a free ride.
That means that for most people, winning a scholarship is just one part of the plan on how to pay for college.
Mr. Kantrowitz crunched the numbers and came up with these conclusions about private scholarships:
• Students with higher grade point averages are more likely to win scholarships. But don't assume a high GPA guarantees a scholarship. Of those with GPAs between a 3.5 and 4.0 on a 4.0 scale, only 18.8 percent of full-time students at four-year colleges and universities won a scholarship.
• Students with above average SAT and ACT college entrance exam scores have at least double the chance of winning a scholarship as students with below-average scores.
• Students at more selective and expensive colleges are more likely to receive scholarships.
• Volunteer activities can increase the chances of earning a scholarship.
Even so, there are more than $3.5 billion of private scholarships -- from corporations, donors, philanthropists and various charitable organizations -- each year, according to Mr. Kantrowitz.
To improve your odds that some of that money will go to you, Mr. Kantrowiz recommends applying for as many scholarships as possible, but limiting applications to those for which you are qualified.
He figures "even very talented" students will have to apply to at least a dozen to win one or two.
He writes that students may have more success with small scholarships because they are less competitive. "But winning several small scholarships can add up to big money," he writes.
Mr. Kantrowitz recommends searching using Fastweb and other free scholarship search Internet sites that match students with possible scholarships.
He also recommends checking for local scholarships in the high school guidance counselor's office or a college financial aid office.
He notes that there are scholarship scams, urging students to beware of any scholarship sites that charge any fee or guarantee a student will win.
And what does Mr. Kantrowitz list first among the most common scholarship application mistakes?
Education writer Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955.