Help Your Grandchildren Get Scholarships

Your associations, ethnicity, or profession can help your family win money for college

By Veronica Majerol

How will your grandkids pay for college?

With higher-education costs far outpacing inflation, it's becoming harder for many families to see an answer. Scholarships — free money that can help defray the expense — can make the difference for some teens. But competition for that money can be fierce, especially in a deflated economy. Your college-bound grandchildren must capitalize on every resource available to them during their scholarship hunt. That's where you come in.

How You Can Help

"I'm a huge proponent of working with grandparents to get scholarships," says Kimberly Stezala, author of Scholarships 101: The Real-World Guide to Getting Cash for College (AMACOM). Who you are, what you've done, and where you've been can make a difference for your grandchildren in the race for college cash. Many universities, for example, offer scholarships to grandchildren of alumni. Ancestry-based organizations set aside scholarship funds for kids who share their ethnicity. The Order of Sons of Italy in America, for example, offers scholarships to candidates who have at least one Italian or Italian-American grandparent. And if you’ve served in the military, your grandchildren may be eligible for scholarships from groups like The American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, or others.

Update Your Résumé

A good first step is to brief your grandchildren on the extent of your associations by creating a grandparent résumé. Stezala advises making a list of all your past and present memberships and affiliations, as well as hobbies and interests, and specifics about your race and ethnicity going back several generations. Once you share this information with your grandchildren and their parents, you can all begin researching scholarship possibilities. Start with the major online databases, like fastweb.com and scholarships.com, and start early, Stezala says, preferably when your grandchildren are freshmen in high school.

Cast a Wide Net

Thousands of dollars in scholarships go unclaimed each year because people don't know about them. That's why researching, and keeping your eyes and ears open, are so important. Carol Cunningham, 83, of Rochester Hills, Mich., helped her grandson land a $2,000 college award last year through her employer, Avon. Cunningham made her first doorstep pitch for the cosmetic line nearly 37 years ago as a single mother, and she still sells its products. Though the Avon scholarship put only a modest dent in her grandson’s $27,000-a-year tuition at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., he won other scholarships for his singing talent, and the family believes every dollar helps. “I thought for all of the years I sold Avon products that the scholarship was a great payback,” Cunningham says.

Harry Culler, 74, and Georgia Culler, 72, grandparents of eight in Swanton, Ohio, have been members of the Elks National Foundation for 38 years and so they were well-positioned to help two of their grandchildren win Elks "legacy" scholarships of $1,000 each. (The foundation has since increased the award to $4,000.) But their connection was only one factor — the foundation also asks candidates to demonstrate four core values: knowledge, charity, community, and integrity. One of the couple's grandsons, for example, took a bus to Louisiana with his church youth group to hang drywall in homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and his brother volunteered with burn victims at a local hospital. "Their grade-point averages were good, they play sports, and then there were the humanitarian things," Georgia says. "It all adds up."

Hands-on Help

Community service is a requirement for many scholarships, so volunteering alongside your grandchildren, starting when they're young, is a great way to position them for the competition — and to model strong values while spending time together. Scholarship applicants often have trouble distinguishing themselves from their peers because their experiences are nearly identical, Stezala says. "They've all played soccer for eight years, and they've all participated in a food drive at school.” But if your grandchildren have also volunteered with you for five years at a veterans' hospital, for example, their applications are more likely to stand out.

Realistic Expectations

Scholarships are great, but winning a prize that covers a student's entire tuition bill is unusual. In all, about one in 15 applicants wins a private-sector scholarship, averaging about $2,000 each, says Mark Kantrowitz, director of Advanced Projects for FastWeb. He advises families to plan for college expenses using the one-third rule: One third from savings, one third from loans, and one third from current income and student aid. In this formula, Stezala says, scholarships are "the wild card. You should not count on private scholarships to fully finance their education, although you sure can try.”

Your own high-school years may be long behind you but grandparents can win scholarships, too. Larry Meredith, 69, of Gunnison, Colo., has already started planning for the higher education of his grandchildren, ages 7 and 10. In addition to setting up 529 accounts for them, Meredith was a 2006 winner of the CollegeInvest Grandparent Scholarship Contest, administered by the Colorado Department of Higher Education, which invites grandparents to write essays describing their hopes and dreams for their grandchildren. CollegeInvest placed the $5,000 winnings in a savings plan, which Meredith divided equally between accounts for both of his grandkids. In his winning essay, he wrote, "May [they] live in a country that so values education that every qualified student will be able to attend the college of his or her choice without worrying about the cost."

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