The rising costs of higher education coupled with dwindling financial aid options has resulted in many responses. A popular response has been the rise of Scholarship Contests, competitive financial aid opportunities for scholars that demonstrate interest, aptitude and passion for niche topics, see this list. Unlike merit scholarships, student grades or achievement or talent or athletic ability isn’t the reason for the reward. Scholarship contests usually casts wide nets to attract thousands of eager students to write an essay or submit a video outlining their view or proposing a solution to a problem or performing creative acts of whimsy.

These scholarship applications are no walk in the park. Even if the requested essay or monologue or work of art isn’t complicated, they often are time consuming. That’s nothing to scoff at, but neither is the coin some of these funding partners offer. In 2011 Jif Peanut Butter awarded a kid a $25,000 scholarship for creating a unique PBJ sandwich! For that reason, and the reality of higher ed costs and funding, I highly encourage students to get into the habit of submitting scholarship applications early and often.

I tell parents of high school students that if your child plans to attend a 4-year university and obtain a college degree then s/he should be walking across the graduation stage with a drop dead minimum of $50,000 in unrestricted scholarship funds.  A lot of people talk a good game about 529s and College Savings plans, but even among my middle-class presenting friends and relations, it’s all talk. I’ve observed even more dire situations for working and middle class families who send their children to private school. After several years of scraping for K-12 education payments, many families are financially exhausted (or still funding younger siblings' primary and secondary education) and don’t have the resources to help students with post-secondary education financing.

I can’t begin tell you how heart breaking it is to see a student with promise and excitement walking away from his/her dreams of college education and long-desired career aspirations, because they were seriously short the funds to stay in school beyond a single year.

Therefore, scholarship contests fill an important gap. Middle school students, high school students, and yes, College students should make finding and completing scholarship contests his/her main extra-curricular activity. This message is especially for students who aren’t connected to performance clubs, merit programs, or athletic programs: Applying for Scholarships is really your only non-loan financial aid option.

Advice for students

For today’s high school students, you need to have at least $75,000 that you can take to ANY college or university that will allow you cover tuition, room, board, and books. Together this money should give you some ability to stretch whatever other (non-loan) financial aid you get from the university and ideally can be used for multiple years --- not just your freshman year – read the fine print of some of the financial aid others.

If you are a middle schooler, there are still some scholarship contests you can participate in, but by the time you graduate I recommend to have $100,00-125,000 in money for college.

If you are a current college student, then you need to continue to apply for scholarship contests. Don’t rest on your laurels. Extra money to cover books and lab fees means peace of mind. The purpose of going to college is to COMPLETE your education. Scholarships let you focus on your studies so that you don’t feel the need to work; and as commendable as it is to work your way through school I need students to know (especially those who are first generation) that any work beyond a work-study situation is a distraction from your studies and career networking.

Next post, I’ll be sharing financial aid resources and scholarship contests I’ve come across lately.