Posted in HS4CC

Getting a Grip on (unclaimed) Scholarships

Scholarships can be a wonderful way to offset some or all of the costs of your teen’s degree! You’ve all heard that there are “millions of dollars that go unclaimed every year” and because it feels like there are a lot of ways a person “could” earn a scholarship, parents worry that their teens are leaving money on the table…but are they?

A scholarship is a financial award that doesn’t have to be repaid.  

Reasons your teen may be eligible to apply for a scholarship:

  • academic merit – grades or grade point average
  • test scores – PSAT/SAT/ACT/CLT
  • living in a certain geographic area – state or county or city
  • excellence in a sport – football
  • excellence in a talent – music
  • pursuing a specific major – cybersecurity
  • being an activist for a cause – animal rights
  • a state-funded situation – COVID
  • dependent of an employee at a company- CVS
  • marketing / college tour or application promotion
  • early application/enrollment/decision promotion
  • dual enrollment promotion
  • many, many, others!

Because it feels like there are a lot of ways a person “could” earn a scholarship, and since we’ve all heard that there are “millions of dollars that go unclaimed every year” we want to be sure our teens don’t leave any money on the table.  

While it is true that some scholarship opportunities go unclaimed each year, and some students get full ride awards, and some colleges are generous with aid, the far more common scenario is that thousands of applicants will compete for just one award.

Where does the myth of “unclaimed scholarships” come from?

According to Marvin Carmichael, past Chairman of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), this notion that billions of dollars of scholarships go unclaimed year has been around for a long time, but it is most definitely a myth. If a university does not award all its scholarship money one year, Carmichael explains, it is because of weird timing issues or highly restrictive eligibility requirements.

Scholarships might go unclaimed because the eligibility criteria is so narrow, that most students aren’t eligible. Take a look at this BIG scholarship from the American Legion website:

American Legion Legacy Scholarship
Sponsor: The American Legion
Amount: Up to $20,000
Closing Date: April 1, 2023

When you click on the link, you can read the full eligibility. The student must be (1) a child of (2) a U.S. military members, who (3) died (4) while on active duty (5) on or after Sept. 11, 2001. There is a second category for a lesser scholarship, but as you can see, the criteria is so narrow, that few will “qualify.”

Of those who qualify, the added burdens are that they (1) be made aware of the scholarship (2) have access to the official death certificate per required documents list (3) have completed the FAFSA form (4) have a letter of acceptance from their target college (5) provide a breakdown of all educational costs (6) do all of this before April 1st. April 1st is next week- would you have access to all of those documents for your 12th grader today?

The scholarship outlined above didn’t go unclaimed, but of the tens of thousands of scholarships offered each year, you can immediately appreciate why some scholarships go unclaimed. Scholarships that are well marketed or “easy” to qualify for will have many applicants.

Even when a scholarship receives many applicants, that doesn’t mean that they “have to” distribute the award. They will still require the applicant to meet eligibility requirements. In the example above, even if the American Legion only received one application, that applicant still must meet all of the eligibility criteria. Being the only applicant doesn’t automatically equal winning.

My favorite and legitimate resource for scholarships can be found here:

JLV College Counseling Scholarships

PRO TIP: Dual Enrollment

Make your own solution to the college-funding problem. I don’t mean building up a hefty college fund (although that’s certainly one way to do it) but rather using many resourceful high school planning strategies that work together to help your student avoid debt. One strategy is to use dual enrollment.

Dual enrollment may have a different name in your state, but it is a program that allows high school students the opportunity to take college classes. In most instances, this is a significantly lower cost than waiting until after high school.

Getting into college is easy.  Getting out is hard.

With no financial incentive to keep tuition prices low (why bother when you can simply get a loan?), we’ve observed a staggering increase in the cost of college.  While this is good news for borrowers, it means that those who want to pay cash, or at least remove debt from the equation, have to be exceptionally resourceful.

A bachelor’s degree is 120 credits, so if a college charges $650 per credit, you know you’ll have to cover at least $78,000 plus housing, means, fees, etc. (120 x $650)

The great news is that those same colleges may allow enrollment during high school for free or reduced cost. Every credit you can complete at a lower rate means saving on the total cost.

  1.  If you’re in a state that offers free dual enrollment – USE IT!  Earning even 1 or 2 free classes will help reduce total cost, but if you can start as soon as your teen is eligible, they may be able to completely finish a full YEAR of college for free before they finish high school. That’s equal to a full ride scholarship for one year!
  2. If you’re in a state that doesn’t offer free dual enrollment, outsource by using one of the college that offer reduced tuition for high school students. Some colleges charge as little as $25 per credit ($75 per class) to out of state students. If you eventually send those credits to a college that charges $650 per credit ($1,950) every class you complete this way saves your student $1,875! Do that once a semester for 2 years and you’ve generated your own “scholarship” worth $7,500.

Plan well. Plan carefully. Be resourceful. Count every credit and every penny. It all works when you go in with your eyes wide open and you can see the goal before you begin.


Executive Director of Homeschooling for College Credit