The Truth About Outside and Private Scholarships for College

We meet lots of families who have the impression there is oodles of money available from outside or private scholarships. These are little-known awards from private companies, foundations, community organizations, churches and other benefactors. There is money to be had from those sources, and they may be worth applying for, but you won’t likely get a free ride from outside scholarships alone.

According to Paying for College Without Going Broke, the money from outside scholarships accounts for only about 5% of the aid that is available. The author points out the biggest chunk of scholarship money comes from funds provided by the federal and state governments, and from the colleges themselves, all of which you access by following each college’s directions to apply for financial aid.

That said, and even if the amount of money available from outside scholarships is comparatively small, free money for college is always a good thing. So here’s how I recommend families go about deciding whether or not to apply: consider the time investment.

Survey Says...

In 2008, the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study surveyed 140,000 undergraduate students about how they paid for college. Among students enrolled full time at four-year colleges, 10.6 percent received scholarships. So the odds of winning a scholarship for students pursuing a bachelor’s degree are about 1 in 10. The average award was roughly $2,800.

Applying for outside scholarships is a time-consuming process. Kids have to research and find the scholarships, fill out the applications, and often write essays, get additional letters of recommendation and maybe even interview. If you devoted 10 to 15 hours of work to win $2,800, would you think it was worth it?

If your answer is, “Of course!” apply for outside scholarships.

If you’d feel like a $2,800 return on your investment of time and energy just wouldn’t be worth it, you might want to reconsider.

Our Experience

That figure is, of course, an approximation. You could win more (or less) than $2,800, depending on your qualifications. Our experience with students supports the logic that the biggest awards don’t come from the outside scholarships. I can’t recall ever hearing one of our students won a $15,000 scholarship from a private foundation or company. I see it happen all the time from the other sources, particularly from the colleges themselves.

If you decide to search for outside scholarships, all the information is available free to you. Two of the best places to search are and