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While catching up on admissions news over my morning coffee yesterday and putting together our Monday link roundup for this week, I came across an interesting article on CNN Money. The article fascinated me so much that I deliberately left it out of the link roundup, as I wanted to think about it, do a little research, and then talk about it in its own separate post. This is that post, if you haven’t guessed by now.

First things first: the article. Blake Ellis writes about an extremely, extremely small percentage of college students who not only fund their entire educations via financial aid, scholarships, and grants, but also end up with leftover money that comes back to them after all tuition, fees, and other expenses are paid. The article highlights just a couple specific examples, including a Brown University graduate who pocketed $16,000 after finishing school and a University of Central Florida student who graduated with an extra $10,000.

How did they do it? Basically, these students secured more funding than it took to cover their college costs and attended institutions where it was possible to get that extra cash refunded to them. It’s a pretty sweet deal.

This story captivated me because it is an example, however isolated, of students experiencing a situation completely contradictory to the prevailing narrative around higher education and money. Instead of graduating from college with mountains of debt, these students actually earned their degrees and came out ahead financially. It’s a remarkable achievement, one that highlights several points all applicants should carefully consider.

  1. College costs a lot, yes, but there is also a ton of money out there to help you cover those expenses. Make sure you devote ample time to researching what’s available to you.
  2. There is a big difference between financial aid offered by a school and outside scholarships/grants. School-sponsored financial aid packages take into account things like family income, academic performance, and even athletic ability (depending on the school) to determine an amount that the school itself is willing to put toward your costs at their institution. Third-party scholarships/grants are awarded to a student by an outside organization, have their own regulations for how they can or must be used, and can be earned for practically anything, from academic excellence to unique skills to personal hardship and disabilities. Tools like the Peterson’s Scholarship Search can help you identify scholarships that you may be eligible to receive.
  3. Each school has different policies in place governing how various types of funding work together. For some, any outside scholarships/grants will reduce the amount of financial aid the school itself would otherwise offer you. At others, those third-party funding sources are added on top of anything the school determines you need. Some will let you apply extra funds to expenses like books, off-campus housing, and food, while others do not. Take time to talk with the financial aid department at your target school so that you fully understand their rules and regulations.

Back to the article. This story, to me at least, brings up an interesting question. Do you think situations like the ones highlighted here should be allowed? Should students be able to secure too-much money for their college education and ultimately get a refund check of sorts? Or should the maximum amount of financial aid, scholarships, and grants available to any one individual top out at what is required to cover their costs and no more? Have these students earned the right to take the extra cash and use it for their own personal expenses, or should that money be put back in the available pool so others can have a chance to cover more of their costs? Does the fact that so many students aren’t nearly as lucky as the ones featured here and end up buried in debt after earning their degrees make any difference in how you feel about this? What’s your take? Do you know anyone who is or was in a situation similar to the ones described in this article?

Finally, another reminder that Peterson’s is offering an awesome $1,000 scholarship this year, and all you have to do to be eligible is sign up. Who knows – if you’re the lucky winner, maybe you could end up like Briana McGeough or Allie Nizam and have enough college money left after paying for your education to buy a new car, rent an apartment, or invest after graduating…