How do we start looking for college scholarships and grants?


Q. My son will be a freshman in high school this September. My wife and I would like to get a head start on grant and scholarship money. What should we know?
— Dad

A. We’re glad to hear that you’re starting your research while you have time to study up and find cash to help cover college costs.

There are essentially four different ways to pay for college: student and parent loans, personal savings, grants and scholarships.

Grants are money given by the state, federal government, or by the university that your son attends, said Jeanne Kane, a certified financial planner with JFL Total Wealth Management in Boonton.

“They are usually based on the family’s ability to pay. These are need based,” she said, noting that $140 billion in grant aid was received by undergraduate and graduate students in the 2019-2020 school year, according to The College Board.

It said the average grant aid per full-time undergraduate student was $9,850 for the 2019-2020 school year.

Then there are scholarships, which are given by a university or third party.

The funds can be need-based or based on merit, which looks at the student’s achievement, Kane said.

“The beauty of grants and scholarships is that you don’t have to pay them back. This is the best kind of aid,” Kane said.

Before looking at how you’ll pay for college for your son, Kane recommends that you first determine what you are willing and able to pay for, Kane said.

Consider whether you’re willing to pay for college at any price, or if you’re only willing to pay a certain dollar amount, such as the equivalent of in-state tuition at a public university, she said, noting it’s important to know where you stand before you start looking at colleges.

But don’t let the sticker price of a private college or university scare you or your son away from applying to college, she said. Many schools offer lots of aid to help bring down the cost, she said.

“Many colleges offer a net price calculator or cost estimator online on their website,” Kane said. “You enter basic financial information and a quick estimate of what you might get in terms of grants, scholarships, loans, work study, etc.”

Kane recommended a few online resources, including, which lists specific information on aid provided at different schools, such as the average net cost and average aid awarded per student.

Turning to scholarships, your son should start planning right away.

Start by taking a look at, a site that has member colleges that are willing to give scholarships based on merit.

“Your son can track his grades, clubs, sports, volunteer activities, and more,” Kane said. “He can then earn micro-scholarships from the colleges he’s interested in.”

Then have him start working on his college “resume” to track every activity, award, recognition and more. This will make it easier for him when he applies to college but also as he applies for scholarships, Kane said.

“Note that in many situations, you can negotiate for more money after he’s been accepted to college,” she said. “There may be an opportunity to get a higher scholarship amount if your son’s grades have improved or he’s received new accolades since he sent in the application.”

She recommends you don’t try to pit one school against another.

“If you get less money from your son’s dream school, they will likely not respond kindly if you say you want more because you got more money from another college,” she said.

Turning to need-based aid, once he’s in school, to get more, you will need to show a change in circumstance such as a reduction in income, job loss or illness, she said.

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This story was originally published on June 22, 2021. presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.