Scholarships: Who Gets Them And Why?

Numerous scholarships are aimed at minorities as part of efforts to boost diversity on American college and university campuses. But some white students complain they're having a hard time finding grants that they're eligible for. Mark Kantrowitz publishes Fastweb.com, a free scholarship matching service and is the author of the book, "Secrets to Winning a Scholarship". He speaks to host Michel Martin about scholarship awards.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We wanted to dig further into Colby Bohannan's perception that whites, particularly white men, are somehow at a disadvantage when it comes to getting college scholarships. So we've called one of the country's leading experts on college financing, Mark Kantrowitz. He's the publisher of fastweb.com, a free scholarship-matching service, and finaid.org. He's the author of "Secrets to Winning a Scholarship." And he's been called upon to testify before Congress on these matters. And he's with us now from member station WQED in Pittsburgh.

Mark Kantrowitz, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. MARK KANTROWITZ (Publisher, Fastweb.com and Finaid.org; Author): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you just heard Colby Bohannan say that he had a difficult time finding scholarships that he was eligible for. Is it true that minorities are more likely to receive college scholarships?

Mr. KANTROWITZ: In fact, they are less likely to receive college scholarships. And they represent about a third of the applicants, but only about 28 percent of the recipients. Caucasian students receive 72 percent of all scholarships. Minority students receive only 28 percent of all scholarships.

MARTIN: Why might that be so?

Mr. KANTROWITZ: Well, partly, the scholarship providers, private scholarships, are sponsored by individuals, and many times for people who are like themselves or who engage in activities like themselves. It's not deliberate discrimination, but, for example, very few minority students engage in equestrian sports, whereas Caucasian students might be more likely to. I mean, that's a pretty rare example. But it shows that when you have scholarships that are for characteristics that you value, then people like you are more likely to qualify for those awards.

MARTIN: You actually say in your book that this is a common misperception and that, actually, every couple of years, somebody comes up with an idea like Colby Bohannan's and tries to generate or create a scholarship specifically for white students. And it generally doesn't take off or last very long. Why do you think that this perception persists?

And why is it that these kinds of, like, for-whites-only scholarships don't tend to succeed very well, even though scholarships for people who engage in specific activities that white people might be more interested in, are more likely to participate in, does persist over time?

Mr. KANTROWITZ: Well, the scholarships are a lot rarer than people expect. I mean, families tend to overestimate their eligibility for merit-based awards and underestimate their eligibility for need-based awards. The merit-based scholarships for students who are pursuing a four-year degree, a bachelor's degree, about one in 10 students receives private-sector scholarships to pay for their education.

And the average amount used per year is $2,815. So when students have higher expectations about the availability of scholarships and then don't win the scholarships, they want to blame someone. And there are a few high-profile scholarships for minority students, and that attracts the attention. They then want to blame those awards.

As to why these scholarships for whites-only awards or white men tend to not last, they tend to be sponsored by students. Before the current one, there was one by the College Republicans at Boston University. And these are students who are doing this attract publicity, and they generally don't last beyond the students' graduation.

MARTIN: And on this specific perception that Colby Bohannan had, is that white males particularly are at a specific disadvantage, do you have any reflections on that?

Mr. KANTROWITZ: Well, men are underrepresented in college education. For the past decade or two, there has been a shift in college enrollment from men being the majority to women being the majority. I don't have a good explanation for why that shift has occurred, but it's something that I've observed. But the ability of men to win scholarships is about the same as the ability of women, even when you disaggregate it by race.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're digging further into this perception that minorities are more likely to receive scholarship money than Caucasians are. Our guest is Mark Kantrowitz. He's a recognized expert on college financing. He's the author of "Secrets to Winning a Scholarship."

Now, we have been talking about private scholarship money so far, but what about public grants? What's the breakdown there of who tends to receive that money?

Mr. KANTROWITZ: Well, the Pell Grant program, the Caucasian students receive a much lower percentage of the awards. A Caucasian student has about a 20 percent chance of receiving a Pell Grant compared to 38 percent for minority students -a little bit higher for African-American students, a little bit lower for Hispanic students. And that's because the Pell Grant is based on the income and assets of the applicant, and minority students tend to have lower income than Caucasian students.

For example, looking just at the students with incomes, family incomes under $50,000, 48 percent of Caucasian students fall into that group, whereas 77 percent of African-American students fall into that group, and overall among minority students, 71 percent.

MARTIN: People often talk about the idea of a full ride. You know, sometimes people joke about this. They say, well, you know, I'm trying to get my son to play golf, you know, so he can get a full ride. Or I want my daughter to, you know, do x, y and z because she can get a full ride. How often does it actually happen that someone gets a full ride, that someone can actually win enough scholarship funds to cover the full cost of an undergraduate education?

Mr. KANTROWITZ: It's quite rare. Less than 3/10ths of a percent of undergraduate students pursuing bachelor's degrees have won enough money to cover their complete tuition. One in 10 students wins private sector scholarships. So most students are going to have to rely on federal grants, state grants and money from the college itself, as well as, potentially, employer support if their parents work for a company that offers employer tuition assistance in order to pay for school.

Also, don't forget about the education tax benefits, such as the Hope Scholarship Tax Credit, which you can claim by following your federal income tax return.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, what are some of the other important college financing myths that you think it's important to dispel?

Mr. KANTROWITZ: An important one is that if you don't save, you'll get more money. And you will get a little bit more money, but you're better off saving because you'll have more choice, more flexibility. You're not penalized for all your savings. You're just penalized for up to 5.64 percent, in the worst-case scenario, of your savings. So it's important to start saving for college as soon as possible, start searching for scholarships as soon as possible, and persevere. I mean, the more scholarships to which you apply, the better your chances of winning a scholarship.

MARTIN: Mark Kantrowitz has written two books on student aid, and he's even been called to testify before Congress on financial aid scholarships and student loan matters. He's the author of "Secrets to Winning a Scholarship." And he was kind enough to join us from member station WQED in Pittsburgh.

Mark Kantrowitz, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. KANTROWITZ: Thank you.

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