Colleges and Universities

Apply Yourself

November 17, 2016  • Karen Gross

Key Points

  • Finding and applying for scholarships is way too complicated. Here’s how to simplify the process—and get more students the help they need.
  • While it is understandable that providers of scholarships want autonomy, independence is creating unnecessary hurdles for the students they want to serve.

When institutions release their college acceptances, the conversation quickly turns to helping students finance their higher education. Financial-aid letters from colleges are deciphered and compared. There’s lots of effort and social-media attention to getting state or private scholarships to bridge the gaps between what a college can provide and what a student and his or her family needs for enrollment. The all-in costs of a residential four-year college can be high and seemingly out of reach for many.

But the quest for scholarships is far from simple and is enormously time-consuming. This is in large part because there is no coordination among the scholarship donors in terms of the application process, the actual application, and the notification dates of approval or denial. Some applications are cost-free; others require a small payment. Some are renewable; some are only for one year. This creates a hodgepodge.

As if the stress of college admissions were not sufficient, students in need of scholarships rush to meet different deadlines, complete different forms, write different essays, or prepare videos or audition tapes. Then they don’t hear results at any regularized time, which means that whether a student can even attend college is thrown into question. This is particularly true if a student needs to stack scholarships to reach the needed dollar-goal. And the problem recurs the next year for scholarships that are one-off awards.

The power of scholarships can’t be underestimated. The individuals, companies, foundations, and states that award them should be lauded, truly and without question. But we must find ways to help students of all socioeconomic classes get access to them. Most students must piece together small awards from multiple scholarships to finance their academic dreams.

Consider this example. Suppose a student is a musician who plays a brass instrument (say the French horn) and is part of a high-school marching band. There is a website that lists scholarships for musicians attending college called UNIGO. Caution though: some websites charge to match students with applicable scholarships and some sites provide incomplete or even inaccurate information.

Once on the UNIGO site, students can see a myriad of scholarships but face a range of restrictions. Many are geographically limited; the scholarships are available to those from a particular state, region of a state, or even a town. Others are available only if one enrolls at a specific college. Some are limited to a particular type of instrument or musical talent.

Take the National Federation of Music Clubs Scholarship. Although UNIGO initially displayed a scholarship of $2,500 and an application date of March 1, 2016, the actual Federation website contains a much larger range of scholarships, some of which require auditions. Some even have entry fees. That certainly ratchets up the time to research and alters the cost-benefit analysis of seeking multiple scholarships.

Turning to the particular music scholarships offered by the National Federation of Music Clubs, one French horn scholarship seems to award $1,300 to one student, with an April 1 deadline. While there are age restrictions (recipient must be between 19 and 26), there is no fee. My efforts to download the PDF application did not work, however. I found another reference to the same scholarship that explained the actual process for obtaining it: a required submission of certain specified musical compositions, played by the applicant on a tape or CD. This reference to the scholarship also listed the amount as $1,500. Nowhere could I find when there would be notification of the award. Since there is only one such scholarship, it also would be useful to know how many students have applied each cycle. If there are ten scholarship applicants, a talented player has a good shot at the money. She might think twice about applying against a field of 100 applicants or even 1,000.

Despite a recent US News and World Report suggestion that finding scholarships in music (this is where the French horn example arose) is easy and just a matter of doing research, my own investigation shows just the opposite. To be sure, there are scholarships available to French horn players, although many are school-specific. Our hypothetical French horn player would face multiple deadlines, possible video or CD submissions, and all with no coordinated notification date.

What’s the solution? Create a database of scholarships of all kinds for all fields of study with a single, relatively simple application (augmented if needed by auditions, portfolios, video, or audio recordings), with a regularized application due date and a standardized notification date. Ideally, that would be in April of a student’s senior year in high school if the scholarship is for the upcoming academic year.

It would be accessible for free, in multiple languages, for any student applying to college. The successful Common App or Universal College App could serve as models. Students could do searches for scholarships that meet their needs and determine whether they meet the requirements for each.

While it is understandable that providers of scholarships want autonomy, independence is creating unnecessary hurdles for the students they want to serve. The universe of organizations offering scholarships share the goal of helping promising students who have unique talents. Just imagine how much more we could do if every deserving student could find and use these funds and no scholarships went unclaimed.