Question: My daughter is an American citizen living in Northern Ireland since the age of 1. She will be entering her last year of schooling in September and will be looking to attend college in September 2012. She wants to do Engineering and is a top student in a top school. How can I find out about scholarship opportunities at American universities she might be eligible for as she doesn't qualify as an international student?
There are three main types of scholarships for American citizens (regardless of where they live and go to high school):
1. Need-based financial aid for those who qualify, based on household income and assets. This funding comes from the federal government and from the colleges themselves. Many of the most selective colleges have ONLY need-based aid, and it can be very good for those who are lucky (or poor ;)) enough to get it. Other colleges will provide some need-based assistance to those who qualify, but students must often take out loans—sometimes substantial ones—to make up deficiencies.
2. Merit aid, which comes from the colleges themselves and is used to encourage the most sought-after candidates to matriculate. Merit aid is sometimes also based on financial need but is usually not. Merit aid can range from about $1,000 up to full tuition and room+board. One of the problems with merit aid is that it's often impossible to predict how much one will receive until admission-decision letters go out in the spring. However, starting in October, all colleges will be required to post “Net Price Calculators" on their Web sites. These can help families determine their bottom-line costs. Some of the calculators have been designed to take potential merit awards into consideration, but this is far from an exact science, and you will get only ballpark estimates. Usually the best way for a strong student like your daughter to receive big merit bucks is to apply to colleges where the typical accepted freshman has grades and test scores that are well below her own. Your daughter can try searching for colleges with engineering programs on College Confidential's “SuperMatch" at http://www.collegeconfidential.com/college_search/ When she enters her test scores and GPA (under “My Scores") she should tick the box that says: I'm interested in schools where I would be well above average, to increase my financial aid opportunities.
3. Private or “Outside" scholarships are those that are offered by corporations, foundations, civic organizations, etc. There are several online search engines that will help your daughter find out about these opportunities. These include:
www.fastweb.com The online questionnaire takes about 10 or 15 minutes to complete. You'll find that the majority of resulting scholarships tend to be in the $500 to $1,000 range, though there are some "biggies" on the list, too. Needless to say, the greater the award, the more competition your daughter will face. Keep in mind, however, that in most cases, the best financial aid comes from colleges themselves in the form of need-based or merit-based grants. Once your daughter fills out the FastWeb questionnaire, she will receive periodic e-mail updates about new scholarships and reminding her about upcoming deadlines. FastWeb is free and completely legitimate.
www.meritaid.com is another place to look for money, particularly for lists of colleges where your daughter is likely to qualify for merit aid.
If your daughter doesn't have official SAT (or ACT) scores yet, I suggest that she hold off on her search until she does, or she can estimate scores when she plays around with the questionnaires.
On another note, when your daughter applies to college in the U.S., I urge her to use her application to highlight what is unusual about her due to her childhood in Northern Ireland. In other words, instead of writing her main essay about winning a debate tournament, playing in the soccer finals, or volunteering at a hospital (standard U.S. essay fare) she should focus on some aspect of her life that is more unique to her upbringing in Belfast.