How to Achieve a Debt-Free College Education

1. Why did you decide to write “101 Scholarship Applications…”?

I had a strong desire for our daughter, Sylvia, to attend college debt-free because nearly every college-educated adult I know over age 40 is still paying college loan payments. I did not want her to be saddled with a huge amount of debt when she was just getting started in life, so I started researching scholarships when she was a 10th grader. I shared a lot of my research and experiences via social media and had a lot of back and forth with other parents and people who knew about scholarships. I was not sure if my strategy would succeed but, once Sylvia entered her freshman year fully paid with no debt, I decided to put the information in a book to share with others. Of my eight published books, it is by far the bestseller.

Use of the “101” in the title is a play on words for two reasons: 1) It really does take about 100 scholarship applications to achieve this goal, especially for freshman and sophomore years; and 2) Beginner’s courses in college use 101 in course title. It’s not quite as daunting as it may seem and a lot of the information is repetitious, and there are some websites where you can submit applications to multiple entities without re-uploading the information. For Sylvia’s junior and senior years, the number of applications was reduced dramatically to about 40 per year because, once the student’s course work is involved with their major, the competition is lower and the dollar amounts of the awards are higher.

2. What is the number one thing African American parents and students should know about striving for a debt-free college education?

Acquiring the funds to attend college debt-free requires hours of painstaking work. Parents need to be actively involved and not leave the process entirely in the student’s hands. Parents should treat the scholarship search and application process like a part-time job, get started during the student’s sophomore year in high school, and involve the student primarily in the essay-writing tasks. Much of the application process is repetitious and requires entry of data into online forms, or completion of applications on paper (which is becoming less and less common).

3. How can a student who doesn’t make straight A’s obtain a debt-free education?

Many scholarships do not have a GPA requirement. Those that do often require a minimum 2.5 or 3.0 GPA. The student’s personal story and achievements are as important as or more important than the GPA. What about the student’s personal history makes him or her stand out among the pack? This is what parents and students should spend a lot of time determining. Obtaining scholarships is almost like a P/R campaign, especially for some of the high-dollar awards. However, once the student is in college, he/she should work to achieve a minimum 3.0 GPA. Awards for already-matriculating college students are more stringent.

4. What can students do while in high school to increase their chances of obtaining scholarships?

High school students need to understand that all four years are extremely important. Taking Advanced Placement and Dual Credit courses will boost the student’s GPA (as long as a grade of C or above is achieved). Students should apply themselves academically during all four years, as well as participate in extracurricular activities. But the extracurricular activities should be balanced and not distract from accomplishing at least a grade of A or B in every subject.

5. You list 101 scholarship applications. How many more scholarships are out there and what is the best way for students to access them?

My book actually has more than 250 scholarships and they are listed in order of deadline date. There are literally thousands of scholarships available, but knowing the requirements helps the student to zero in on those for which they are qualified. There are several websites that provide scholarship opportunities (which are listed in my book), but it still requires hours of searching. My book helps eliminate a lot of the mystery about the process and gets parents and students ready to hit the ground running.

6. Your daughter is a senior in college and has no college loan debt. She will graduate debt-free in May 2018. In a nutshell, how has that been accomplished?

My daughter and I started with a plan and the debt-free college quest is a team effort. She did everything mentioned above and more. She attends an HBCU, North Carolina Central University, and for her freshman year of college, we submitted 90 scholarship applications to different entities. For her sophomore year, we submitted even more — 104. As stated above, once she reached junior year, we did not submit quite as many because the larger scholarship awards within her major occur during junior year.

We also periodically contact the university financial aid office regarding available funds. Students might be surprised that schools receive new funds on a regular basis and timing is important. Contacting them periodically about recent achievements could result in more money for the student. For example, in 2015 my daughter and I wrote a book for teen girls titled You Are Wonderfully Made: 12 Life-Changing Principles for Teen Girls to Embrace. It was nominated for an NAACP Image Award in the Teen category. We contacted the university to let them know about the nomination and Sylvia received a substantial annual scholarship from the school at a result.

7. How often do you update your book and what is your process for updating it?

A new edition of my book is published every January. Throughout the year, as I learn about new scholarship opportunities, they are added to the previous year’s manuscript. I also update other sections of the book as I gain more knowledge and experience, or to update data on college costs and other information. In November, I go through the entire book to make sure that the existing scholarships are still active and available. The book goes to press in December and a new edition is released January 4th of each year.

Gwen Richardson is a Publicist and Web Site Manager. You can contact her at (281) 444-4265, CUSHCITY.COM, or email her at gwenrichardson123@gmail.com.