Only 2 percent of high school athletes score athletic scholarships and an even smaller percentage of college admissions test takers win National Merit Scholarships. But high school seniors applying to college this fall -- and those already there -- have a better chance of finding other scholarships that can shave hundreds or even thousands of dollars off their college educations.

Some of this money is being left on the table. “I get complaints from scholarship givers who tell me they’re not getting enough applications,” says Larry Pon, CFP, and head of CPA firm Pon & Associates in Redwood City, Calif.

One of his clients, an Italian Catholic, found her child an $11,000 scholarship offered by an Italian Catholic organization. “That’s $11,000 tax-free,” he says, and would take students with minimum wage jobs countless hours to earn.

Financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz notes that scholarships awarded to undergraduates more than doubled to $6.2 million in 2011-12 from just under $3 million in 1999-2000, 2003-04 and 2007-08. More than 1.8 million students received scholarships for the 2011-12 academic year. On average, $3,994 was awarded to the nearly 1.3 million recipients pursuing bachelor’s degrees. This data he shared comes from the 2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. The next edition of the study will be available in 2017.

“Very few students in bachelor’s degree programs get a free ride,” says Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of strategy for the college search and scholarship portal and author of the book Secrets to Winning a Scholarship. Still, the odds of winning a scholarship are 1 in 8 (11.9 percent), he says, and 13.7 percent of students get enough scholarships and grants to cover at least half the cost of attendance.

Students should apply to every scholarship for which they’re eligible, he says. Those using a free scholarship matching service, like, can double the number of matches, on average, by answering the optional questions in addition to the regular questions, he says. The optional questions trigger the inclusion of specific awards.

Kantrowitz suggests that students applying for scholarship clean up their Facebook and Twitter accounts to exude a more professional online presence. “More than a quarter of scholarship providers require finalists to friend them so they can look for red flags,” he says. “Google yourself, to see what comes up,” he adds. “The scholarship providers will.”

Over the past five years, Pon has compiled more than 60 links to scholarship-related sources and posted them on his firm’s website. Included are scholarship databases offered by college websites, FinAid and Fastweb (Kantrowitz has served as publisher of all three), SallieMae, the College Board and Peterson’s. Pon also shows professional organizations, corporations, social groups and nonprofits that offer scholarships.

Pon notes that Tall Clubs International offers scholarships to women at least 5’10” and men at least 6’2”. Little People of America generally awards them to individuals below 4’10” and impacted by dwarfism. The Stuck at Prom® Scholarship Contest has awarded more than $350,000 in cash scholarships to students who’ve fashioned prom attire out of Duck Tape® brand duct tape.

Pon encourages students to consider scholarships offered by schools and alumni associations. Remember that every scholarship award helps. “Nobody gets a free ride to college,” he says, “but $500 is still $500.” He tries to make sure scholarship search engines are legitimate because, he says, “There are a lot of scholarship scams out there.”
Ready for graduate school? Kantrowitz notes a total $1.38 billion in fellowships ($6,930 on average) were awarded to graduate and professional school students in 2011-12.