One of Charlie Munger’s beloved aphorisms is to “fish where the fish are.” It doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to succeed, but you’re much more likely to succeed than trying to fish anywhere else.
When it comes to college scholarships, there’s a cliche so old it’s practically an antique: apply for as many scholarships as possible, no matter the amount, because every little bit helps to make college affordable.
I don’t know the origin of this conventional wisdom, but it’s so banal I’m not even going to bother to disagree with it (though I think high school students have better things to be doing than applying for $50 scholarships from their local credit union). Instead, I’m going to suggest an alternate approach.
Think like a grant applicant
When the federal government wants to research the causes of diabetes, it sends out a request for proposals for research into the causes of diabetes. All the nation’s diabetes researchers submit their proposals, and the federal government selects the most promising proposals to fund.
There’s nothing you can do about the amount of money appropriated for diabetes research, which determines the number of proposals accepted. What you can focus on is the one thing you can control: being a diabetes researcher with a compelling research proposal. That’s because no matter how much money is appropriated, only diabetes researchers are going to be approved to receive it.
The same logic applies to receiving student aid: become the kind of person who receives student aid, and you’re much more likely to receive it.
Research government funded educational programs: that’s where the money is
Let’s start with an easy one. Everyone knows that low-income college students are eligible for federal Pell grants. But did you know there’s a second low-income college scholarship program, the Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant? The catch is, not every institution participates in SEOG — to receive a grant, you need to attend a participating institution. Unfortunately, 20 minutes of searching didn’t yield an official list of participating programs, which means you’ll need to check each institution you’re interested in individually. Searching for the institution’s name and “FSEOG” or “SEOG” typically works, although you can also call the financial aid office and ask directly.
Now let’s take it one step further. The Department of Education also runs a competition to award Foreign Language and Area Studies, or FLAS, grants to undergraduates studying “modern foreign languages and related area or international studies.” To receive a FLAS grant, you need to be studying a foreign language at a school that receives FLAS funding. It’s no good to study foreign language anywhere else, and it’s no good to study anything else at a FLAS school. Fortunately, a list of 2014-2018 FLAS schools is available online.
Finally, there are entire educational programs funded by the federal government. To continue the example of foreign language training, the federal government, at great expense, has created undergraduate language fluency programs in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi Urdu, Korean, Persian, Portugese, Russian, Swahili and Turkish. Note that while the programs are generously federally funded, they don’t include scholarships for undergraduate students. That brings me back to the first point above: think like a grant recipient. The programs themselves don’t have to include undergraduate scholarships, but if you can enter a language flagship program suddenly you become the work product of the grant applicants, which means they have an incentive to see you succeed, whether that means writing letters of recommendation, finding scholarship funding, or providing work-study opportunities.
I’ve been using examples from foreign language studies since that’s my own background, but opportunities exist in other fields as well: do you know about the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program? You have to attend one of the 151 participating institutions to participate.
My readers already know that you don’t need “scholarships” to go to college for free: you just need to have a low enough income and attend a school that promises to meet your full financial need with grant aid. If you’ve decided to have a high income, or decide to attend a school that expects you to contribute to the cost of your tuition, then it may make sense to pursue scholarships. But if you’re going to do so, you’re going to have much more luck going from big to small than vice versa. And when it comes to “big,” there are no deeper pockets than Uncle Sam’s. Start there.