The Problem With Full-Ride Scholarships for College

No matter how deserving, your child may not receive a full-ride scholarship to attend college. Here are some other ways you can help them get there.

A few years ago, a good friend and I planned a nice lunch followed by some shopping. Before we could go to lunch, my friend needed to drop off her son at the golf course where he was employed as a caddy. He was just in middle school, but my friend was adamant that he would work as a caddy through high school so that he could qualify for an Evans Scholarship — a prestigious full ride that, in 2023, was awarded to just 325 students across the country. 

My friend’s plan for a full-ride scholarship is one that many parents share when they’re thinking ahead to college. When your child does well in school, has artistic or musical talent or sets state records in their sport, it’s tempting to think there will be ample scholarship opportunities when the time comes. 

In reality, full-ride scholarships, which cover tuition, fees, room and board, are very hard to come by. According to 2021 research, a mere 0.1% of students receive this level of financial award.

What many parents don’t realize is that scholarships aren’t an all-or-nothing proposition. Of the 1 in 8 students who receive a scholarship toward the cost of tuition, 97% receive $2,500 or less. Any money that helps ease the financial burden of a four-year college or university is, of course, welcome, but what impact does $2,500 make when the total bill for tuition, fees and room and board at Michigan State University is $26,426 a year?

Alternatives to full-ride scholarships

By all means, encourage your child to aggressively pursue any and all scholarships and grants to offset the cost of college. Meanwhile, here are some additional ways you can realistically achieve a postsecondary education for your child:

1. Have a frank discussion with your kid, and do it early. 

It makes sense that you want your child to have a financial stake in paying for college. Most parents do. According to research from 2019, 28% of parents expected to pay the entire cost of college, and a full 38% expect their kids to cover most of the costs of higher education. If you fall into this second category and your child is set on a college education, start the conversation early so that your kid can adopt a college-savings mindset long before they enter high school. 

While your child will likely need some form of postsecondary education, is college the only choice? For some students and families, that path is certain, while others may decide to start at a community college or pursue an apprenticeship or other trade-specific program. There are so many options that it’s worth discovering what interests and aptitudes your child actually has before making that final decision.

No matter their choice, talk about finances and create a plan to help your child achieve their goals. Revisit this plan often, and adjust as situations change.  

2. Open a 529 account and contribute on a regular basis. 

A 529 account is a tax-advantaged way to save for the expenses related to college attendance, including tuition, fees, room and board, books and computers, according to Michigan Education Savings Program (MESP). Parents, grandparents, family members and others can open an account, and anyone can contribute. Your child does not have to attend a Michigan college or university to use the funds in the 529.

According to information at misaves.com, money saved in a 529 does not disqualify students for additional forms of financial aid. This is because 529 assets are typically treated as belonging to the parent — or grandparent — and count less in Expected Family Contribution calculations than assets held in the child’s name.

Don’t worry about what will happen to the funds in your 529 if your child does, in fact, receive a full ride or another significant scholarship award. Beginning in 2024, beneficiaries can roll over up to $35,000 of unused 529 funds into a Roth IRA in their name, giving your child a valuable start on their own retirement savings. This is just one more reason it makes sense to open and fund a 529 for your child’s college education.

3. Learn the real costs of attending college

Parents of infants and toddlers know that college is more than a decade away. When the immediate concern is which preschool program to choose, funding a college education is never top of mind — and this makes sense. 

But how do you create a plan to fund a college education if you aren’t fully aware of its costs? According to a 2021 survey by Fidelity, one-quarter of parents of high school students believe that a year of college costs $5,000 or less — and they’re referring to the sticker price, or cost before any grants, scholarships or financial aid is considered. The actual average tuition at one year at a four-year in-state public college or university is $9,400. At a private nonprofit college, the average tuition is $37,600 per year.

Your child’s costs will vary, but it makes sense to keep an eye on costs, and figure them into your own financial plan, no matter how young your child is right now.

I’m happy to say that my friend’s son did, in fact, become an Evans Scholar. He had a highly competitive high school GPA and demonstrated financial need. Understandably, his parents were thrilled when he was selected to receive this award, which the scholarship foundation estimates is worth $120,000 over four years. And, while he was limited to the in-state schools that had an existing Evans House where he lived as an undergraduate, he received a great education. 

No matter how deserving, your child may or may not receive a full-ride scholarship — so it’s important to remain realistic about how you’ll pay for college. If they end up being in the lucky sliver of students who do receive that full ride, your plans and dreams will still have paid off. 

Content brought to you by MESP. Learn more and open your own college savings account at misaves.com.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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