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Landing scholarships can be as crucial as getting into the right school

Paul Yost has one daughter in community college and another headed for university, so he considers scholarships a financial blessing.

But there are limits, the Spokane resident says. “The criterion for applying for a scholarship is based on its value divided by the number of hours required to apply. I explain they should not bother applying for any scholarship where the value is less than what they could earn working” that amount of time.

That’s not a sentiment shared by all.

Says Coeur d’Alene resident Babette Banducci, whose son landed a couple of scholarships, “No amount is too small to chase after.”

Kari Farnsworth, a career specialist at Shadle Park High School in Spokane, said her advice to students is “to apply for whatever they might be eligible for.”

Now is the time to be thinking about scholarships, which can range from $500 to a full ride. The bulk of application deadlines fall between now and March.

College prices have risen as much as 30 percent nationwide in the past five years, education officials say. Tuition at Washington’s two biggest schools, Washington State University and the University of Washington, increased 14 percent this year. Oregon schools’ cost increased 13 percent. In Idaho, which until this past week capped tuition increases at 10 percent, hikes ranged from 5 to 7 percent last year.

As states continue to struggle with significant budget deficits, college prices are likely to rise again.

In the past decade, it’s estimated that 2 million academically qualified students did not go to college because they couldn’t afford it, according to the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, an independent body that advises Congress and the U.S. secretary of education. But much of that has to do with a lack of awareness regarding available scholarships and strategies for obtaining them, as well as understanding complicated federal aid applications, the organization said.

From athletes to Zolp

Cash for college is available to smart, athletic and civic-minded students, of course. But there are also scholarships for the couch potato who doesn’t drink, smoke or vigorously exercise; for the couple who wear duct-tape outfits to the prom; the surfer and the skateboarder; a lefty; and a person with the last name of Zolp.

There are scholarships for students who are vegetarians, who have military affiliations, like to bowl or have a particular ethnic background.

Said Shadle’s Farnsworth, “I have a list of about 200 scholarships, posted on our Web and in hard copy.”

Nancy Pemberton, a career specialist at Rogers High School, offers students a strategy for applying for scholarships. “If, say, they only have time to do six scholarships, I tell them to do the ones they are most likely to get,” she said.

First, apply for opportunities through the high school, she said. Next, apply for scholarships offered by Spokane-area businesses and clubs, then those that are restricted to residents of the state, and finally, apply for national scholarships, Pemberton said.

It’s common for high schools to have scholarship opportunities for their students. Rogers High School, for example, has 17 scholarships of about $1,000 each available only to its students, courtesy primarily of alumni and booster clubs.

High school career specialists also talk to seniors about their career and college interests, then send information about available scholarships aligning with those interests to the students. Banducci’s son, Paul, started by applying for scholarships he found in the career center at Lake City High School. The former Coeur d’Alene resident, now a college senior, also contacted a university he was interested in attending and found out about a scholarship available for his area of study.

“Because he was interested in political science and history, the head of that department sent him paperwork for a $2,000-per-year departmental scholarship,” Babette Banducci wrote in an e-mail. “He was awarded that one, and then the academic one (for his ACT scores) was $5,000 per year.”

Individual schools’ scholarships typically can be found quickly on the schools’ Web sites.

Banducci’s younger son is now applying for scholarships using much the same approach.

When it comes to national scholarships, and are the most-recommended sites to search for mainstream and unusual opportunities, Pemberton said.

Effort to streamline aid forms under way

If a student is unable to find a scholarship or doesn’t have any luck landing one, there’s always federal financial aid.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included a $500 increase in Pell Grants, for low-income students, and a $2,500 college tax credit for all who spend more than $4,000 on tuition and fees.

Federal officials also think simplifying the financial aid form – which includes about 150 questions – would lead to more applicants.

“More than a million students fail to apply for aid because of the application’s complexity,” President Barack Obama said in a speech last summer.

The Obama administration is simplifying the process by modernizing the online application, trying to eliminate unnecessary questions, and creating an easy process for students to use tax data to apply, he said in that same speech. The changes are expected to be implemented in January, officials said.

“If it was less daunting, people are probably going to get to it quicker.” said Banducci, whose first son applied for federal financial aid in addition to scholarships. Simplifying it would help, “absolutely.”