Traverse City News and Events

Can't Give Enough Money Away: Many Local Scholarships Go Unclaimed

By Craig Manning | Feb. 15, 2020

As student debt climbs and the call for “free college for all” gets louder, college scholarships play a critical role – yet hundreds of thousands of free dollars go unclaimed locally.

Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) recently announced it had set several new records with its scholarship figures for the 2019-2020 school year: $1.28 million in scholarships to 964 students. Those numbers will likely continue to increase in the future, thanks to the $11 million NMC has raised for scholarships as part of the “Be What’s Possible” campaign launched last fall. However, the record figures were accompanied by notably lower numbers elsewhere: only 28 percent of NMC students even applied for scholarships this year, and just 82 percent of the college’s available funds were distributed.

Rebecca Teahan, director of the NMC Foundation, says NMC has been working diligently in recent years to encourage more students to apply for scholarships (the 28 percent of students who applied in 2019-20 is actually up from 22 percent in 2016-2017).

"In some ways, it just comes down to what students believe to be true,” Teahan tells The Ticker, explaining that NMC’s scholarship application is bundled with its federal financial aid application. “A lot of students assume that they won't qualify for federal financial aid, so then they don't fill out that application at all.”

NMC has been working to make the application more user-friendly, in addition to trying to spread the word that everyone should fill it out. Teahan says the college has made previously-optional orientation sessions a requirement for students, so that they can hear more about scholarship opportunities. Still, though, Teahan finds it “highly unlikely” that NMC would ever be able to award 100 percent of its available scholarship funds.

“Several scholarships are specific to certain program areas, and just to match the students with all the different types of scholarships doesn't always occur,” Teahan explains. “And then what sometimes happens is a scholarship will be awarded and then the student chooses not to attend. We can try to re-award it, but that doesn't always happen.”

That challenge – of matching students to every scholarship available – is not a hurdle that is unique to NMC. The Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation (GTRCF), which offers nearly 100 unique college scholarship opportunities to local students each year, faces similar struggles. According to Alison Metiva, vice president of strategic engagement and programs, the foundation receives 500-600 scholarship applications each spring, from when the process opens in January to when it closes on March 2. In 2019, GTRCF received 560 scholarship applications and handed out 230 awards to 194 recipients, totaling $272,428. Those figures accounted for the majority of the scholarship funds the foundation had available -- but still left 10 percent on the table.

“Most often, the funding that we are unable to award in a given year is because we don't get applicants for those particular scholarships,” Metiva says. “We have about 100 named scholarships and each come with their own criteria, some of which is very general and easy for students to plug into, and some of which is very specific and more difficult for students to plug into.” Metiva says GTRCF has particular trouble attracting applicant pools for scholarships targeted toward skilled trade programs, apprenticeships, or other technical education areas.

Metiva says GTRCF is working hard to make local connections “related to those scholarships that we have been unable to award in the past.” That process includes targeted outreach to academic counselors and teachers at local schools, particularly at the Career-Tech Center. The goal, Metiva notes, is to “get as many dollars out as possible.”

Matt Breimayer – whose local business Right Path College and Career Planning helps families with everything from college applications to financial aid – says the process of applying for scholarships can be daunting. As a result, many students don’t take advantage of as many opportunities as they could.

“I think a lot of people are just unaware of where [the scholarships] are and how to get them,” Breimayer says. “They don’t know where to start.”

The sheer volume of scholarships available, Breimayer notes, proves to be a double-edged sword for many families: It means there are a lot of opportunities out there, but it makes planning which scholarships to apply for more complicated.

Breimayer recommends starting with local opportunities – like those offered through GTRCF – because doing so means a smaller pool of applicants than a national, statewide, or even university-specific scholarship. After that, Googling for scholarships aimed at specific schools, study areas, geographic regions, student hobbies, or family heritages can prove to be lucrative. Breimayer also says every college-bound student should invest in The Ultimate Scholarship Book 2020, which compiles information about more than 1.5 million awards – cumulatively worth billions of dollars – into one place.

Beyond compiling a list of opportunities, the best thing students can do is apply early and often. “It really is the law of large numbers,” Breimayer explains. “My comment to parents is: could your student do one scholarship application every week from now until they graduate college? Maybe they only win 5-10 percent of those, but that’s still probably tens of thousands of dollars.”

PHOTO: TC Central High School 2019 Tompkins Scholarship Recipients Taylor Kenney and Devin Newton with Ida Tompkins and daughter Mary Ann Tompkins Galic

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