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Options available for students looking for college aid

February 27, 2013 9:32:56 PM PST
College students are graduating with a record amount of student loan debt and tuition is so high many students can't afford college. But some people may not realize that there is a lot of free money available.

You might be surprised at how many organizations are just waiting to hand you money to go to school. An estimated $5 billion is available for those who apply and you don't have to be a straight A student to get a college education for free.

Oakland resident Carlos Hernandez always carries this family photo in his wallet. He wants to remember how hard his parents worked so he might someday go to college.

"My dad works in construction, my mom cleans houses," he said.

Hernandez was not only first in his family to graduate high school, he did so with straight A's. Suddenly he realized he could qualify for the prestigious school he'd visited as a young boy -- UC Berkeley. The only problem -- he couldn't possibly afford it.

"I just know i'm not going to get the funding that others can get," he said.

Counselors told Hernandez to try to win a scholarship. Maybe, someone out there would help.

"I began to apply for scholarships, even if they were just $200, as many as I could," he said.

He spent days filling out forms, writing personal statements, but didn't hold out much hope.

Then an email.

"It said, oh congratulations Carlos, you were granted the scholarship," he said. "I was really excited."

It was just $200, but Hernandez was thrilled. Somebody wanted to give him free money. And it was just the beginning.

"I feel really blessed I was given quite a few scholarships," Hernandez said.

Seven scholarships in all -- he received $33,000, enough to cover all expenses for his first year.

"That really motivated me even more because I was like, you know what, there's people who believe in me," Hernandez said.

Diane Dodge is director of the East Bay College Fund, which awards its own scholarships and helps students find others.

"It's very possible for many students to have their complete college education paid for by a combination of aid," Dodge said.

Many are being awarded right now, but many will go unclaimed.

"Thousands of dollars are left on the table every year and this happens because people did not apply," Dodge said. "They didn't know about it, or they didn't spend the 10 minutes to fill out the form and press send."

Hundreds of companies and foundations offer grants, often for specific types of students.

"It could be anything from a child of a coal miner back east; there are farmworker children's scholarships, there are scholarships for people who went to prom in duct tape," Dodge said.

Sure enough there are unique offers like the duct tape scholarship. It's given to students who made a prom outfit out of duct tape and may have a future in design.

For Hernandez it was a lot of work, but the reward will last a lifetime.

"Even though it might be scary, you might have some fear, but don't be afraid to put yourself out there, you know yes I want to do this but I need help," he said. "People have said yes we'd love to help you.

There is a very important deadline coming up on Saturday: March 2 is the last day to file an application for the FAFSA federal student aid program. It will put you in the running for lots of money including Cal Grants and Pell Grants.

Also, don't pay any company to find you a scholarship. Some will ask for your social security number and bank information. Don't give it out.


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