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YOU can get extra cash for school!

Digging between the seats of your '98 Tercel for spare change? You might want to hold off on scavenging long enough to read this article. 

Life is expensive any way you cut it.  If you're paying for college, grad school or a professional program, you know it can be really expensive.  Annual tuition hikes are only heightening the challenge.

The latest Trends in College Pricing by the College Board, reports that the 2004-2005 academic year tab for a four-year undergraduate degree averages $20,082 (up 6 percent from last year) at a private school and $5,132 (up 10.5 percent from last year) at a public one.  That's just tuition!  This "tab" is increasing every year and a look at tuition rate inflation offers little comfort for the years ahead.

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Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid, states that in recent years, tuition inflation "has been between 6 percent and 7 percent.  A seven percent college inflation rate means that the cost of college doubles every 10 years."

How do you pay for this costly adventure without taking out loans the size of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen's personal worth (a meager $76 million)? 

Scholarships, grants and fellowships are a good place to start.  They are all forms of financial aid that DON'T have to be paid back.  That's right, free money! OK, almost free.  You do have to research and fill out paperwork, but the hours spent and pencil lead used could earn you thousands of dollars. 

Where do you find this dinero? Pack up your lunch, grab a notebook and mosey on over to your local library, counselor's office or career center. A multitude of books, newsletters and computer search programs are at your fingertips. But hold on, Lone Ranger. Before you head off into the sunset you might want to get yourself organized. 

Make a list of factors that make you eligible for any scholarship. You don't have to be Einstein or Michael Jordan to be competitive for financial awards. You've heard of scholarship offers for someone born in Bucklick Hollow, Ky., whose dad works for the Mister Mouse cheese factory.  Don't laugh, they're out there. OK, maybe not Bucklick Hollow, but you get the point.

According to Chris Vuturo, author of "The Scholarship Adviser" (Random House, 1998), when building a profile of eligibility you should "include as many categories as possible. Start with the big stuff."   He suggests potential majors, place of residence, extracurricular activities, service activities, societies you belong to, sports you play, ethnicity and religious backgrounds.  Don't forget to include parental affiliations -- clubs, professional organizations and place of employment.  Vuturo found that his parent's insurance company gives away a scholarship to policyholder's children.

Once you've made a profile, check out some scholarship indexes and application help books.   These books are often available for free in your library and career resource centers.  Most are easy to use and are organized similarly to your profile -- by majors, career interest, etc.  If you're not into photocopying or you don't feel like camping out at the library you can find these books for a nominal price at a local bookstore.

Time to let your fingers do the walking and home in on those computer skills. An online search is an easy and quick way to access scholarship information.  The only down side is that you're stuck sifting through a generous amount of information that might not be free.  Some sites sucker you into filling out a lengthy form and in the end tell you to pay $45 if you want your scholarship matches.  For FREE scholarship searches try these sites: FastWeb, SRN Express, Mach25, WiredScholar and Finaid.

What about companies that guarantee $1,000 of scholarship money in exchange for a fee? Scholarship search companies are numerous and their services can cost you from $45 up to $395. These companies take a student profile and match eligibility requirements with scholarships.  For a fee you receive a list of scholarships that you might be eligible for.  Is it worth it?

"In my personal experience, I found that the list of scholarships they could generate was inferior to the ones I could generate on my own," Vuturo says.  "No one can guarantee you a set amount of money or winnings.  Finding a source is just the beginning.  There is a whole process to successfully competing for scholarships.  Beware of anyone who promises you the moon."

Don't be narrow-minded when you look for financial aid.  Aside from traditional scholarships, you can find service and fellowship programs in your field of specialty that offer big bucks. Americorps is a national service organization that allows people of all ages and backgrounds to get financial help for school in exchange for a year of service.   

If you have special talents such as writing, composing music or researching, use them to enter competitions for award money. A unique sculpture could win you up to $1,000 through the Young Sculptor Awards Competition from the National Sculpture Society.

Whatever path you choose, be wary of scholarship scams.  Due to a large amount of complaints,  The Federal Trade Commission has initiated Project $cholar$cam, a law enforcement and consumer education program to protect college students from fraudulent college scholarship services.  People who offer free information such as Kantrowitz warn, "If you have to pay money to get money, it is probably a scam."  If a program is suspicious you should contact The Federal Trade Commission before you toss your clams away.

The key to success is to start early, don't get frustrated and stay open minded.  Use every resource you can get your hands on.  Don't disillusion yourself -- this is a timely process. The good news is that if you spend three hours researching and win a $3,000 award, you earned $1,000 per hour.  With so much free information out there, don't get stuck with a big research bill.  Books and software have minimal costs and may be worth the investment, so don't lose your shirt to finance your education!


-- Updated: Jan. 19, 2005


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