A goldmine for college scholarships

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(MoneyWatch) Are you overlooking a lucrative source of college scholarships? The odds are yes.

Many people assume that the biggest source of college cash are private scholarships that come from third parties such as foundations, employers and other nonprofits, but that's wrong.

Private scholarships, such as those from the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, the Gates Foundation and the Intel Science Talent Search, represent the smallest source of college money. Add up all those outside scholarships and they amount to only roughly 7 percent of all college grants and scholarships. 

Turning to colleges for scholarships

A much richer source of scholarship funds are colleges themselves. That's especially true for affluent families. Students with wealthier parents don't qualify for federal Pell Grants earmarked for low-income students or need-based grants from states. 

Colleges and universities will automatically put all applicants in the running for their own in-house scholarships, and you can capture this money simply by getting accepted into the school. Typically, the more a school covets an applicant, the more generous the merit scholarship and/or financial aid package are. 

Aiming for overlooked talent scholarships

What teenagers and their families often don't realize, however, is that there are other scholarships available for talented students who hunt for them. Many schools also offer additional talent scholarships for applicants that typically require a separate application. These scholarships are often given to students who have special abilities in such areas as art, music and writing or who demonstrate an unusual level of community service or leadership.

Students can also win these extra institutional scholarships if they declare a particular major. For instance, my daughter Caitlin won a scholarship for Spanish majors at her school, Juniata College, which required her to converse with the department chair partially in Spanish.

These scholarships are definitely worth pursuing and can be far more lucrative than private scholarships, which have an average value of $2,500. Institutional talent scholarships also can be easier to capture.

MeritAid.com, which maintains a comprehensive database of merit and academic scholarships offered by colleges and universities across the country, is a great resource. You should also look at a college's admission and financial aid sites to find a list of their scholarships.

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