With college costs skyrocketing, more high school graduates are looking for ways to get the best deals on higher education.
That’s where groups such as the Chicago Scholars Foundation come in.
They help students from low-income or first-generation college families navigate the college application process. Students are urged to have a savvy strategy and aggressively seek scholarships that can help foot the bill.
“It’s like flying for the first time and going to O’Hare,” said Dominique Jordan Turner, the CEO and president of Chicago Scholars. “We help guide the way for them to get to their gate or otherwise they’ll miss their flight.”
That kind of guidance is crucial. The cost of a private college rose 27 percent from the 2002-03 school year to the 2012-13 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In the 2014-15 school year, the average cost of a private university was $31,381.
Arianna Alexander, Kenwood Academy’s valedictorian and a participant in the Chicago Scholars program, secured $3 million in scholarships. Alexander, who is headed to the University of Pennsylvania, received mostly full rides from the 26 universities where she was accepted.
“It was a long process but I started early,” Alexander said. “It was not as stressful as it could have been.”
When room, board and other fees are counted, Penn costs about $68,000 a year for freshmen, according to the University of Pennsylvania website. Her financial aid package covers all but about $8,000.
She applied to all of the colleges at about the same time, and then it was just a matter of waiting. When Penn’s acceptance letter came in March, that was it.
“I always wanted Penn,” Alexander said. “There was no other school I considered.”
Despite having a dream school, Alexander said she knew she would also apply to at least 20 schools, but her father and college counselor encouraged her to apply to more. In total, Alexander applied to 29 colleges. Her dad wanted her to apply to all the Ivy League schools, and her high school counselor urged her to apply to as many historically black colleges as possible. The Common Application also simplified things; it’s a single application, filled out online, that is accepted by hundreds of schools, making it so much easier to apply to many colleges, Alexander said.
Tulsi Patel, valedictorian at Northside College Prep, will attend Columbia University in the fall. Of the nine schools she applied to, Columbia offered the best aid package. She said completing applications and applying for scholarships by herself was challenging.
“The financial aid process in college was difficult,” Patel said. “There were so many sites.”
Turner said she encourages the hundreds of students in Chicago Scholars to not let a college’s tuition dissuade them from applying. Students are required to apply to at least five schools.
“Our job is to educate on the differences and the price tag,” Turner said. “The price tag might be very high, but they have programs that will cover your full demonstrated need.”
“I knew there were lots of scholarships out there, but I never knew how to look for them,” said Lakerrie Forrest, a recent graduate from South Shore International College Prep. “They taught me how and where to look for them.”
Forrest, who applied to 19 schools and was accepted into 17, is headed to DePaul University in the fall.
The average amount of scholarship aid first-time college students receive is $9,740, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
“Applying for scholarships can be a daunting process,” said Paige Ponder, the CEO at One Million Degrees, a non-profit that mentors Chicago students through the college process. “Many students are doing everything all at once and not sleeping — all that. Applying for 10 different scholarships can be another burden.”
To alleviate the burden, One Million Degrees pushes students to look only at scholarships that fit their needs and helps them retrieve all the pieces involved in the application.
“I was feeling a lot of anxiety understanding the process,” said Cynthia Herrera, who was mentored by One Million Degrees and will attend DePaul as a first-generation student.
“Having somebody there that knows you and your needs is helpful in so many ways. Not everyone has a personal coach or mentor who’s only there for you through the college process.”