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Scholarship Study: The Real Chances of Getting Free Money for College

Feb. 26, 2013
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This study highlights the best time to apply for scholarships, the best state for scholarships, and what demographic group has the most available scholarships.

It’s no secret that the price of a higher education is increasing. As of last year, the average cost of tuition at a public university rose by 4.8 percent. Through scholarships, students are sometimes able to mitigate this sky-high cost. To find out more about getting free money for college, we used the NerdWallet Scholarship Tool to analyze 5,864 verified private scholarships. All scholarships are through private organizations that are not university affiliated. Here are the results:

  • The greatest number of scholarship deadlines occur in March—over 25 percent of all private scholarship deadlines—and the largest pool of money to win from. However, the highest average scholarship amount is doled out in September.
  • There are 4 times as many scholarships for females as there are for males.
  • Only 6 percent of private scholarships have ethnic restrictions, but access to these scholarships is relatively equal amongst minority ethnic groups.
  • High school seniors have the greatest number of scholarships available to them. The number of scholarships available increases by more than 10 times, from high school junior year to high school senior year.
  • California has the most number of private scholarships available, with over 20 times as many as the state with the lowest number. Furthermore, California has the greatest pool of money for scholarship applicants.
  • Home state and study area are more important than gender and ethnicity. Forty percent of scholarships have location restrictions and 37 percent have study area restrictions, while only 5 percent have gender restrictions and 6 percent have ethnicity restrictions.

March Madness:  March Claims Over 25% of Scholarship Deadlines

The most common deadline for private scholarships is March. Of the 5,864 scholarships, 4,965 had specified scholarship deadlines; 1,410 scholarships had deadlines in March—28% of all scholarship deadlines occurred in March. Further, the greatest pool of scholarship funds, $3.5 million, was awarded in March.

Although the greatest number of scholarships have deadlines in March, the highest average scholarship amount have deadlines in September and October. These fall months have average scholarship awards of more than $5,000.

California: Palm Trees, Good Weather, and Lots of Scholarship Money

Of the 5,864 private scholarships analyzed, 2,339, or 40 percent, have state residency requirements. The greatest number of scholarships are open to California residents at 253. Further, the total money pool open to California residents ranks at the top with over $700,000 available. This may seem like a small number to some, but as a reminder, these are private organization scholarships and not university scholarships.

Ranking State Number of Scholarships Available Total Pool of Scholarship Money
1 California 253 $717,449
2 Ohio 205 $346,739
3 Michigan 196 $379,909
4 Indiana 151 $317,034
5 Texas 149 $435,779
6 Illinois 137 $279,951
7 Virginia 128 $256,189
8 Pennsylvania 111 $293,427
9 North Carolina 97 $279,000
10 Oregon 96 $321,111

Power to the Female: 4 Times More Female-Only Scholarships

Historically, females have had to face more social challenges and restrictions in order to obtain an education. However, women are now passing men in number of college degrees earned. The fact that females have more scholarships available to them may still reflect the historical social barriers they had to face to attend college in the past. In particular, there are some great scholarships for women returning to college.

Ethnic Requirements: Equality in Scholarships

Only 5 percent of the scholarships had ethnic requirements, mostly open to minorities. There was no drastic difference between the numbers of scholarships open to various minorities. Here are 10 brilliant scholarships for African-Americans and the Top Scholarships for Hispanics.


Application Requirements: Home State and Study Area Weigh More Heavily than Ethnicity and Gender.

Scholarships were originally created to provide aid to those who faced obstacles in higher education. This led to the belief that scholarships were often for ethnic minorities or women only. However, today there are more scholarships that place home state restrictions and study area restrictions compared to ethnicity and gender restrictions. Search our scholarship database to see more.



High School Seniors Take the Gold: There are Over 10x as Many Scholarships Open to High School Seniors Compared to Juniors

No matter what year of high school you’re in, money for college is always welcome. However, with college right around the corner, it makes sense that more scholarships are open to high school seniors than juniors.

Key Student Takeaways

So what does this all mean for students?

1. Students should search for scholarships and should always take advantage of any opportunity—however, the best time of year to apply is March.

2. Scholarships with restrictions based on state, ethnicity, city or study area may yield the best results.

3.  Pay special attention to scholarships senior year of high school.


Data Sources