Degree Discount: How to Pay as Little as Possible for Your Diploma

By Arkansas NEXT Staff on Monday, September 19, 2011

College isn’t cheap. But before you succumb to sticker shock, know this: 80 percent of freshmen at Arkansas colleges receive some kind of financial aid. In a lot of cases, you can get cash just because you need it. You’re likely to get more money, though, if you’ve demonstrated that you’re serious about school. So first things first – hit the books and get good grades. Then, follow this step-by-step guide to the Benjamins, and you’ve got a good shot at leaving college with a degree and little debt.

Step 1: Fill out the FAFSA.

  • Why? Why not? After all, it is called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Oh, and it’s your only shot at financial assistance from the feds.
  • When? As close to Jan. 1 as possible, which means you’ll have to bug your parents to file their taxes ASAP. There’s a limited pool of grant and scholarship money, and it’s first come, first served. Processing your application can take about six weeks. Remember, you’ll have to reapply every year for federal aid and some state scholarships.
  • Where? Get the application from your guidance counselor or online at
  • But what if I’m not eligible? There’s only one way to find out. Stop looking for excuses and apply.

Step 2: Apply for the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship.

  • Why? It’s a no-brainer – this is your shot at a chunk of money that can cover almost the entire cost of tuition and fees for an entire academic year. Recipients headed to four-year schools in 2011-12 get $4,500 per year; two-year school students get $2,250 per year. That’s right – per year. Do well in college, and you can ride this money train all the way to graduation.
  • When? The deadline is June 1 of your senior year. P.S. You have to have filed your FAFSA to be eligible.
  • Where? Click here on the Arkansas Department of Higher Education's website and fill out the questionnaire. Once you finish, several scholarships you’re eligible for will display, and the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship will be among them. Then, just click the account creation button and follow the prompts.

Step 3: Apply for scholarships from your college.

  • Why? Alumni who made it big give money back so that younger generations can have the same opportunity. And guess what? They might not have had a perfect GPA when they were your age. Put some feeling into the personal essay (if one is required) and maybe they’ll see something in you that they think is scholarship-worthy.
  • When? Often, the deadline for applications is in the fall of your senior year.
  • Where? Ask your admissions counselor – or anyone in your college’s admissions or financial aid office – how to apply.
  • But what if I haven’t chosen a major? Many colleges have scholarships available to students no matter what their major. In some cases, though, you’ve got a shot at a bigger pool of money if you go ahead and declare. If that’s the case (ask your admissions counselor), consider making a decision. You can always change your major later on.

Step 4: Apply for statewide and local scholarships.

  • Why? Scholarships are free money, so you should apply for as many as possible, especially considering that for the 2008-09 academic year, the average price for full-time undergraduates to attend a public four-year institution in Arkansas was $11,669, an increase of $1,054 over the previous year. And that’s just tuition, fees, room and board. For private four-year schools, the cost was $21,053. (All this is according to the most recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics.)
  • When? Deadlines vary, so check with your guidance counselor. Here’s a tip: Put all the application deadlines on the same calendar so you don’t forget any.
  • Where? Many of the applications for local scholarships will be available through your guidance counselor.
  • But what if I don’t have time to apply in between homework, extracurricular activities and everything else I’m busy with? Do it anyway – it’ll be a good primer for your busy days as a college student.



Tips for Finding Even More Scholarship Treasure

  • Look at the heavy-hitters. Many times, companies and franchises offer major scholarships. Check out Fortune 500 companies too — they want the best and brightest minds to join their teams, and many times that equals paying for their education. Hot companies: Walmart, Coca-Cola and Target, to name a few.
  • Do some local legwork. Businesses around your area might have scholarships specifically for graduating high school seniors in your city. When you’re out shopping, stopping by your bank or running errands for Mom, take a few extra minutes and ask if the business provides any scholarship opportunities. Hot spots: banks and car dealerships.
  • Climb the family tree. Sometimes the companies that your parents work for offer special scholarships for the children of their employees. Get your mom and dad to ask around the office for you.
  • Check with your school…high school, that is. The Arkansas Community Foundation website has a listing of scholarships that are only available for students graduating from certain Arkansas high schools. Definitely check this site out! Visit
  • Be wary of websites. When you start looking at listings, make sure you’re checking out a reputable source, and remember — real scholarship applications don’t have fees attached! Hot sites:, and