I’m a proud Penn State alumnus. There’s no denying it. I attended the school’s prestigious applied economics program where I managed to earn my master’s degree.
While there, I made some lifelong friends, learned a good deal about the quantitative side of economics, and published an academic article or two.
Another thing I did while there: incurred absolutely zero debt. Zip. Nada. Zilch. It’s a rare feat these days given what everyone hears about student debt exploding, but I made the conscious decision to attend a graduate program where I wouldn’t have to worry about graduating with debt.
I applied to a number of schools but the only way I would consider attending is if the school met this criteria. I wanted a world-class education at the low, low cost of being free. I wasn’t asking too much, was I?
I was accepted into a top private university but not offered any financial aid and elected to pass. The degree wasn’t worth the debt in my mind.
And They PAID Me
To make the situation even better, I worked hard to get a research assistantship that paid me to attend. From there, I conducted a large search for additional scholarships to defray the costs of living.
I searched far and wide to find any scholarships that I might qualify for and I submitted all of the required paperwork. I ended up writing a lot of essays and was successful landing two scholarships to help with my living costs.
I don’t say all of this to brag. I worked hard to bring all of these resources together and knew there was a way to avoid paying for my education. If only I looked hard enough, I’d find what I was looking for. Because of this, I know there’s a way for you to do the same.
Scholar’s Chip on the Shoulder
Penn State’s main campus is located in State College, Pennsylvania. Near the middle of campus is the world famous Berkey Creamery. This building houses the world’s pre-eminent Ice Cream U.
While in school, I trained with my roommate for some of my first endurance running events and would often celebrate new personal records by going to the creamery to get one of my two favorite flavors: Scholar’s Chip and Alumni Swirl.
Much how I wouldn’t allow myself to attend a school where I hadn’t earned the right to attend for free, I wouldn’t allow myself the pleasure of eating one of these delectable treats if I hadn’t earned it after a long run.
I would posture that you should follow the same logic and look for ways to earn your right to attend a school for (far) less than asking price. You don’t want to graduate with a cumbersome debt load and have a chip on your shoulder for the rest of your life because you had to pass on so much due to repaying it.
With that, let’s look into some of the best ways I found to locate scholarships to finance my education.
How to Find Scholarships
Fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (better known as FAFSA). This form is great for identifying the many forms of financial aid, educational grants, scholarships, and other forms of assistance available to you.
Additionally, there is a search option to see if there are available funds earmarked specifically for students like you, depending on your socioeconomic status, ethnic background, age, gender, and many other dimensions.
These scholarships come from schools, employers, individuals, private companies, non-profits, communities, religious groups, and professional and social organizations. You name it. I can’t state enough how important it is to fill out your FAFSA. If not, you’re passing up your chance at FREE money.
Some college scholarships are merit-based, meaning that you earn them by meeting or exceeding certain standards set by the scholarship-giver.
Merit scholarships might be awarded based on academic achievements you had or on a combination of academics and a special talent, trait, or interest. Other scholarships are based on financial need.
A scholarship might cover the entire cost of your attendance or it might be a one-time award of a few hundred dollars. Hopefully you qualify for more of the former but you shouldn’t discard the smaller ones that are made available.
For my undergrad, I cobbled together no fewer than 7 scholarships to pay my way. Some were for $500 – $1,000, while others were for more than half of my tuition. In all honesty, the smaller ones were easier to get because they usually required less and had fewer people apply.
I found most of them through organizations I had joined while in college or through my financial aid office. Speaking of which, you need to find your college’s Mary Sue Rix.
2. College Financial Counselor
When I was in undergrad, I would routinely visit with my college financial counselor. My school’s head of financial aid was this remarkable woman named Mary Sue Rix. She was one of the sharpest people I have ever met with amazing recall abilities.
Her office put together an entire list of every scholarship registered with the school and put it at the back of our annual handbook. I took to this listing with a highlighter and marked every scholarship I qualified for and set a series of appointments to meet with her to discuss.
You might not be surprised to hear that I didn’t get most of them because they had either been given out already, their endowments had fallen below a certain minimum balance and couldn’t be awarded until rising back above, or I didn’t meet some other criteria.
Regardless, I did find a couple of scholarships I otherwise wouldn’t have.
3. Network Like Crazy
This is more of a life goal. It’s always important to have a strong social network to help you get to where you want to go.
By networking with a large group of my peers, I was able to find one scholarship offered through a company that partnered with my school through an internship program.
At the time, I had already accepted an offer from another company to intern for them but since this company didn’t have anyone apply that particular year, I decided to ask what they intended to do with the accompanying scholarship funds.
The representative said she’d be delighted to award me the scholarship since the funds would go unused otherwise. Sometimes it pays to ask, which leads me into the next step.
4. Always Ask for More
One of my scholarships was set to expire and there wasn’t anything I could do. Or so I thought. I contacted the organization to find out if I could continue the scholarship for at least another year.
After speaking with the representative a number of times, I realized there wasn’t much hope of continuing on this scholarship. I felt bad because I didn’t want to find another scholarship so late in the game.
If I couldn’t make up the shortfall quickly, I’d have to scramble to find money to pay my school’s bursar office.
Feeling like I had nothing to lose, I decided to call her one last time and simply ask if there were any other scholarships for which I might qualify. She indicated that there was another scholarship and no one had been selected yet because no one had applied. Imagine my luck.
She awarded me the bigger scholarship at the end of the call. What a relief that was and all I had to do was ask.
5. Join College Organizations
While in school, I was very active around campus. I participated in multiple extracurricular activities and had a blast. I also felt they might have some scholarship money to offer.
My fraternity offered a merit-based scholarship, as did my economics department. I applied for both and was awarded scholarships from each.
For the economics scholarship, I asked my professor if she knew of any available funding and she pointed me to Mary Sue Rix to award me the scholarship endowed in her name. Had I not asked, I might not have received it.
As for the fraternity scholarship, it actually followed me from my undergrad for three years to Penn State for two additional years. That was a huge help while in school and made me not have to ask my parents for too much assistance.
Many other organizations are on your college campuses. Be sure to join ones that interest you because you’d like to interact with people who share your interests. But also be sure to ask if they offer any sort of financial assistance for their members. Never be afraid to ask.
6. Work Study/Get a Job
While this might not be the most original idea, it certainly can help. I graded papers for my economics professor for two years in undergrad and performed research in graduate school as part of my research assistantship. Neither was glamorous but both helped me to pay my way.
7. Check Your State for Special Programs
Depending on where you live, your city, county, or state may offer financial aid in the form of grants or scholarships.
For example, in the state of Louisiana, if you earn a threshold GPA, take certain courses, and apply to an in-state school, the state’s Tuition Opportunity Program for Scholars (TOPS) program offered to pay an annual grant directly to your school.
Many states understand the value of educating their citizens and offer aid to attend an in-state school. Be sure to look up whether your school offers any such program.
Many more ways to find funding for school exist, but I highlighted the main ones that helped me. The common link is that I was persistent, entrepreneurial when it came to thinking of funding sources, and I wasn’t afraid to ask. You shouldn’t be either. My motto came from the greatest hockey player who ever lived, Wayne Gretsky: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
If you ever find yourself in State College as a Penn State student with a large helping of financial assistance, grants, and scholarships, be sure to pick up a healthy serving of Scholar’s Chip from Berkey Creamery to celebrate your achievement. After you graduate debt free, you might make the switch to Alumni Swirl.
About the Author and Blog
In 2018, I was winding down a stint in investor relations and found myself newly equipped with a CPA, added insight on how investors behave in markets, and a load of free time. My job routinely required extended work hours, complex assignments, and tight deadlines. Seeking to maintain my momentum, I wanted to chase something ambitious.
I chose to start this financial independence blog as my next step, recognizing both the challenge and opportunity. I launched the site with encouragement from my wife as a means to lay out our financial independence journey to reach a Millennial retirement and connect with and help others who share the same goal.
I have not been compensated by any of the companies listed in this post at the time of this writing. Any recommendations made by me are my own. Should you choose to act on them, please see my disclaimer on my About Young and the Invested page.