When a Full College Scholarship Really Isn’t

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Some schools demand that students personally foot a portion of the bill, even if they have financial aid that would cover everything.

Schools call it a minimum student contribution. Families might call it unaffordable.

Dozens of schools make students pay some of their education costs out-of-pocket — even when they have enough financial aid to cover everything, MarketWatch says. The site tells the story of Beatriz Barros, who was a freshman at Cornell forced to pay $8,100 even though she had a scholarship large enough to cover everything.

“[Barros] says the school’s financial aid office declined to accept it, saying it was a required payment that she would have to make on her own,” MarketWatch says. “To pay for her and her family’s extra costs, Barros signed up for federal student loans, abstained from flying home for Thanksgiving, and cut back on her meal plan.”

The contribution is usually a flat amount between $1,500 and $4,000 a year, moving toward the higher end as the student gets closer to a degree, MarketWatch says. But at some schools, even that’s not enough.

“Some schools, such as Boston College and Rice University, say students must make this required payment plus turn over 25 percent of their assets, such as savings or brokerage accounts,” MarketWatch says. Why?

The most charitable interpretation offered in a National Scholarship Providers Association report that tackles the issue is that students who have skin in the game will take college more seriously. “Some institutions require a minimum student contribution because they believe that a student will not appreciate the education if it is completely free,” it says, “[or] because of a belief that it leads to improved academic performance.”

But the problem is, students who can’t afford the contribution expected of them often have to turn to student loans. And because these can seem like a free ride when they’re taken out, that sort of defeats the purpose of requiring students to pay.

Students may need a mix of need-based (determined by finances) and merit-based (determined by academic performance) financial aid to escape the conundrum at these schools. “Some schools will permit merit-based scholarships, which students earn based on their grades rather than their finances, to cover this student contribution,” MarketWatch says.

Ten of the 61 schools surveyed by the NSPA demanded student contributions, while MarketWatch found more than 36 across the country that do.

Stacy Johnson

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