Blog | 3 Min Read

Finding Money for College

We hear the question all the time. “Where can I find scholarships for my child?” We will direct clients to a few sources like their guidance counselor, online searches (like,, Scholarship America,,, or various local foundations.

While private scholarships are great and students should explore these options, your clients need to focus on the number one source for college gift aid–the colleges themselves! 61% of families who use scholarships get them from the college.

When it comes to finding the money to pay for college, the four primary sources are:

  • Federal government
  • State government
  • Colleges and universities
  • Private organizations and foundations

The Federal government provides $120 billion in aid to college students. Part of this aid is need-based grant money; however, much of it is student loans and work-study funding. State government aid is in the form of grant money as well. Clients without need will not qualify for grant aid.

The solution? Finding those colleges that will provide merit based gift aid in the form of scholarships. In 2018/19, scholarships covered 19% of college costs. Scholarships accounted for the the largest chunk of how American families paid for college.

When looking for college money, always seek out what you don’t have to pay back first.

Your clients might not qualify for need-based grant aid. Loans and work-study are not exactly “gift aid” because your client’s student either pays them back in money or their time. We call them self help. Private scholarships are competitive, take time the student may have a short supply of, and account for a small slice of the scholarship pie.

Clients can focus on the bigger chunk of free money, and this truth…colleges compete for talented students. Part of the way they do this is by making the price attractive and more affordable.

How can your clients find colleges that will provide scholarships to their students?

First, clients need to know that some colleges do not provide merit aid at all or it is extremely limited to only a handful of top incoming students. Often families are surprised by this.

Colleges such as Northwestern, Notre Dame, (and many more) or flagship state universities like University of Michigan or University of North Carolina are not going to provide academic merit scholarships to your client’s student. They only provide need-based aid. Their applicants are all academically talented. They don’t need to compete for students. They provide need-based aid to encourage opportunity for all.

How do your clients know which colleges provide merit aid? A quick Google search can help. Google “Penn State merit scholarships,” and the quick reply is “Penn State does not offer standard merit awards for students who fit particular profiles” from their admissions page. On the flip side, Google “Miami University merit scholarships,” and the result is their page spelling out all the scholarships they provide.

As a side note, colleges who don’t provide merit aid may have slightly broader definitions of who qualifies for need-based aid, and they may pay 100% of that need. If your client is a border line need-based aid candidate, it is worth looking closely at these schools.

Understand your client’s student fit in the college’s applicant pool.

What do we mean? Admission decisions are made up of several factors, but the primary ones are GPA, test scores, and academic curriculum. Your clients can use a website like to look up a college and compare their student’s test scores with those of their preferred colleges. We call this student positioning–how do they compare relative to other admitted students. If the student’s data is higher than the middle 50%, they have a better chance of receiving merit aid from that school (if the college has aid to give).

We’re all way too busy! Families need to spend their time wisely.

While private scholarships are worth exploring up to a point, do not ignore the larger source of money for college…the colleges themselves! Your clients should dig into whether or not a college provides merit scholarships and how their student matches up with the others they are competing against to get into their ideal university.

Originally posted 10/2018
Updated 10/2019