Scholarship money piles up as deadline looms

With the rising cost of tuition and the rising cost of pretty much everything else, students might find it surprising that thousands of dollars in scholarship money go unawarded every year at UAA.

Although UAA has hundreds of scholarships available, students refrain from submitting applications for different reasons.  Some think the process is too difficult while others may not think they are eligible for scholarships.

“I think our scholarship application process is very streamlined and simple, especially in comparison with a lot of other colleges,” said Sonya Fisher, Associate Director of the Student Financial Assistance Office. “Students submit one application.  The financial aid office does all the leg work to figure out which scholarships a student is eligible for.”’

That general application includes five questions and a five hundred-word essay. That essay seems to be what trips up most students.

“I think it is daunting for a student just to sit down and write 500 words about themselves.  It’s not something that students are generally comfortable doing,” Fisher said.

Many places around campus, including the writing center and career services, have offered assistance to students who are stumped by the essay.  Freshman Kristina Atherton, who has yet to declare a major, applied for a scholarship with the help the Native Student Services staff.

“It’s is easy. They help you and they have examples,” she said.

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Besides the essay, many other misconceptions keep students from applying for scholarships, such as the idea a high grade point average (GPA) is required.  Yet the majority of scholarships require only a 2.0 GPA.

Still other students think they do not qualify for scholarships because they already have financial assistance.  Around UAA, many students fall into that category and receive a scholarship each semester, including Jonathan Stinson, a Political Science and History sophomore.

“I’m in the Forty-Ninth State Fellows program and we don’t have to apply for that scholarship, being in the program you just automatically get it, unless you’re in bad standing,” Stinson said.

But Stinson, like many students, was unaware that he could qualify for many other scholarships as well.  Students can receive scholarships to use for expenses other than tuition and fees, meaning there is seemingly no limit to the amount of scholarships a student can receive.

”If you need [scholarship money] for housing, books, supplies, whatever, that money will just be refunded to you,” Fisher said. “So it’s money in your pocket.”

Another common misconception that keeps students from applying for scholarships is that they believe they must qualify as low-income.  That particular type of scholarship is called a need-based scholarship and they only account for less than half of all scholarships available.  Need-based scholarships are based on information gathered from students’ Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which all students are encouraged to fill out.

The FAFSA calculates a student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC).  The EFC is then compared to a student’s cost of attendance, which, on average, is $20,000 per academic year. If a student’s EFC is less than, even slightly, the cost of attendance, that student could qualify for a need-based scholarship.

But some scholarships, called merit-based scholarships, do not even consider financial information.

“Merit-based scholarships are probably over half of our scholarships,” Fisher said. “They don’t even look at finances. They are looking at GPA, academic performance, your leadership skills and your essay.”

Merit-based scholarships sometimes require biographical data, such as marital status, that is collected through the FAFSA. That means filling out the FAFSA is an important step for anyone applying for scholarships.

The Student Financial Assistance Office has over 125 different funds through which they award money, many of them offering multiple scholarships. Each year the office has thousands of dollars in unawarded scholarships. Those scholarships include department specific scholarships as well as some very specific scholarships.  One example is a scholarship for students with epilepsy.

“I did a little dance, literally, in my office last week because I actually got my first application for that in three years,” Fisher said.

The UAA Office of Student Financial Assistance is hosting a scholarship workshop on Feb. 3, 2011 from 1-2 p.m. in room 103 at the University Center.  Visit http://www.uaa.alaska.edu/scholarships for more information or send questions to [email protected].