Self Help for College Students

As the cost of college continues to increase, students and prospective students should be ever mindful of ways that they might help themselves reduce the cost and increase the power of the college experience. For a self-reliant student who doesn’t receive financial support from parents, relatives or work savings and wants to borrow as little money as possible for college, which is always my first recommendation, U.S. News states there are alternatives:  Scholarships, grants, work-study and a plain old job are just four examples.

Scholarship support for students who have had a good academic history is abundant. The U.S. Department of Education distributed $46 billion in grants and scholarships. Some estimates place total scholarships distributed through U.S. universities over $14 billion per year. Additionally, there are private, state and university-funded scholarships and aid programs that total in the tens of billions of dollars.

Some scholarships are focused on areas related to business or family interests. For example, Duck Brand provides a $10,000 award to the student who designs the best “Stuck at Prom” outfit fabricated from Duck brand duct tape. The Affordable Colleges online website lists dozens of unique scholarships. The Burger King “Whopper” scholarship grants $50,000 to a student who attains a 3.3 GPA and a minimum 25 ACT score or 1220 SAT score and who displays a leadership role in community service, athletics, and/or similar co-curricular activity plus substantial work experience.  There are a multitude of opportunities, but they must be sought out.

The best way to compete for scholarships is to consistently perform in the classroom and attain an excellent academic record and to serve something larger than self. The value of hard work and results-driven sweat equity in securing scholarship support cannot be overstated.

Grants and other “need-based” forms of support provide resources for enterprising students. The most widely known are Pell Grants. This year the maximum need-based award was just over $6,000, and a total of over $30 billion is available. These grants are income-based, and a free application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) must be submitted. All high-school students should document interests and need through the FAFSA process. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has signed the legislation HB3, which, among a multitude of other things, requires every public high-school student in the state to complete a FAFSA application. It is not just a good idea; it is now the law in Texas. The information on the FAFSA is used in many scholarships and grant application processes, so there is an economy of effort. Nationally, $2.6 billion in federal grants were left lying on the table. Of course, unlike student loans, scholarships and grants reduce the student-debt burden.

Work-study can mean any form of working while going to school, but there are special programs such as Federal Work-Study (FWS), which provides over $1 billion in support for students who work on campus. This makes FWS attractive to universities, and the requirements and conditions are sympathetic and consistent with the life of the student and often supports student career aspirations. This win-win scenario benefits both institution and individual. Student workers earn money and, when effectively lead and managed in the college environment, provide valuable assistance to the university. A strong work ethic and FWS provides “earn and learn” potential and high individual benefit. Institutions like this arrangement because they can pay capable students who meet the qualifications a portion of their salary and FWS pays the difference. Universities should embrace the value of meaningful labor through institutional action. Ultimately, the value of any university experience is gauged by the impact on a person’s life to produce something of value to someone else.

Lastly, students can help themselves by having a job while they attend school. Working while studying typically improves academic performance while supplementing resources. Students who work part-time typically do better academically and are more satisfied than students who do not work at all. If students can find a job on campus, even if it’s not FWS, there will be a complementary relationship between the two. It is rare to find a campus supervisor who doesn’t gain satisfaction in helping a student achieve their aspirations. This is the case no matter the kind of employment, whether a grounds keeper’s assistant or working in the library. All work has value.

The importance of students helping themselves cannot be overstated. Correctly directed self-help—not greed or avarice, but taking control of the responsibility required to attain an education—is a positive step for any college student.

And, it is a lasting testimony to the power of self-help, like a plain old job.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at