For about 10 years now, I’ve invited anyone to tell me about someone they personally knew, whose family did not have financial need, who got a free ride for all 4 years at college. By free ride, I mean all expenses paid, not just free tuition, and not just a one-year fellowship or grant of some kind. Finally, someone has come up with this plum, the result of a Facebook discussion. She sent me this list, which is interesting to review. Upon drilling down, however, many of the awards on this list are—you guessed it—tuition only. She also told me she knew of a student at the University of Delaware (un-named) and that her own child had gone to the University of Central Florida with only $500 in costs of books, and transportation costs to get there. Score! Someone did it!
One of the most generous on the above list appears to be the one at Duke. Drilling into their website, they currently have 122 people (across all four years) who are Robertson Scholars. Duke has a student body of 15,192, which means 0.08% of the student population managed to land this. There are currently 21 freshman Robertson Scholars. Duke received 41,000 applications for the freshman class, giving an individual student a 0.005 chance of landing one of these awards. In other words, slightly better than a snail’s chance in hell.
Here’s another list I found through our old buddy, Google. If you look at these, you’ll see that a lot of them are also tuition-only, or for one year, or you have to be on campus already, or they’re for a very small number (sometimes only 1) student in a huge student body.
You may think this has changed my opinion. You’d be wrong. But I’m now willing to acknowledge that someone, somewhere, has actually gotten a full “free ride”, for college. But don’t plan on it unless you can guarantee your student will meet all the following conditions:
Be willing to go to any school that accepts them
I’ve yet to hear about an Ivy League quality school. Indeed, even needy students that get free tuition from an Ivy often find themselves in deep debt for living expenses, because in many schools aid means loans as well. Getting in at all is a real challenge. The New York Times just published an excellent long-form piece on low-income applicants, and the calculus of admissions. Even though they mention that 89% of students get aid, guess what? That includes loans. It’s a must read for any family going through the application process.
If your student is pragmatic enough to choose schools by aid packages instead of prestige, you may have a chance at an award from a school where the profile of the student body is far less academically qualified than your student. Yes, I believe the student and their motivation is more important than the school, but having been to state schools and big-name schools, and having a daughter who also matriculated through both, I can confidently say there is a difference in quality of instruction and student experience. No one has ever asked me for my grades; I graduated magna cum laude from Northeastern Illinois, and well, I graduated from the University of Chicago—but the later is the only cred that has ever counted for anyone.
Be really, truly extraordinary
That means, be a National Merit Finalist, at least. There were 15,000 last year, of whom 2,500 actually got a lousy $2,500 scholarship—but schools look very favorably on them. Or win the Intel, or a Davidson or some other nationally-ranked competition. Publish a commercially edited book. Be an activist or humanitarian who’s been on national news. I don’t care if your kid tested profoundly gifted or has a perfect SAT—yawn, I know quite a few for whom that didn’t even guarantee admission.
Be absolutely certain to major in a field corporations want
This means engineering or computer science. Ha, ha English or Italian literature majors. Because you’re just not worth paying for if you’re not in an “economically useful” STEM field—what’s a liberal education worth anyway. Let’s all support college as a trade-training mill. And quit your major (engineering is one of the most dropped)? Bye, scholarship.
Be willing to go to a region where no one in their right mind from your area would go
Hello, northern urban person. Enjoy Podunk U. The football games are great. Lotsa school spirit.
Any school that has even a slight whiff of full-ride programs will immediately get far more applications, which will mean that your student will have even less chance of actual admission than they might have had before such a “generous” policy was announced. And if you refer to the NYT article above, you’ll see that making the school aware that you need financial aid seriously impacts your chance of admission at all, whatever they’d like you to believe.
It’s not quite as hard as finding a virgin to catch a unicorn. But assuming your kid is smart and will get a “scholarship”–ergo you don’t need to save–is not a financial plan. You’re going to need one.