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9 unique college scholarships to consider

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By Ciara Larkin/MainStreet.com

With education costs at record highs and outstanding student loan debt topping $1.2 trillion nationwide, prospective students are staring down the barrel of burdensome college debt. Sure, President Obama's recent goal to make community college free for all students and his college ranking system based on affordability and ROI are steps in the right direction. But free tuition, or even tuition assistance, would be an immeasurable gift for many. As such, it's the responsibility to those in school or getting set to matriculate to apply for opportunities that will lessen the financial blow of a college education.

"Scholarships reduce the student's debt and work burden," says Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president at Edvisors and author of multiple books on college planning.

Of course, scholarships and grants can also help ensure a successful college career in the first place.

"Scholarships also increase college enrollment and graduation rates," Kantrowitz added.

Unfortunately, many students who are currently enrolled in college or are planning to attend soon are unaware of all of the scholarship and grant opportunities that exist across the board. While many scholarships require a solid grade-point average to qualify, and some grants are particular toward certain income amounts or club affiliations, there are quite a few others in existence with different requirements that practically go unnoticed.

Read on to see if any apply to you or your family.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation

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The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, established in 2000 by self-made billionaire Jack Kent Cooke, offers various grant and scholarship programs for promising students with financial need. The foundation gives financial assistance to high school, undergraduate and graduate students who show exceptional academic standing. It offers scholarships for both undergraduate students entering college for the first time, as well as for transfer students looking to transfer to four-year schools from community colleges. For each program, scholarship recipients can receive up to $40,000 per year for three years per student. Isa Adney, a Jack Kent Cooke Scholar, received her scholarship award in 2007.

When asked how the scholarship impacted her life, she reflected on the monumental impact it had:

"In lifting the financial burden, what it really did was lift my own perceptual burdens," Adney said. "It forced me, through sheer dollars, to dream bigger, to reach higher. It made me feel like someone believed in me because someone was willing to invest in me. That experience, coupled with what I learned as an SAT tutor, taught me that, while money doesn't buy happiness, it does buy opportunity. There are no words to fully express the gratitude I feel for that gift."

Adney has since completed her master's degree, is a promising public speaker, has authored two books about college success and has been featured on multiple media outlets regarding these accomplishments. For more information on the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship, check out the foundation's website.

Great for: College students, either beginning or continuing, who display excellence in academia and exhibit financial need.

The Federal Pell Grant

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Typically awarded to undergraduate students, Federal Pell Grants are awarded to multiple students each year. Mark Kantrowitz weighs in here by explaining that the Federal Pell Grant is one form of financial aid that tends to go unclaimed year after year.

"In 2011-2012, an estimated 2 million students would have qualified for the Federal Pell Grant if only they had applied by filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)," Kantrowitz said. Of these, 1.3 million would have qualified for the maximum Federal Pell Grant.

"These students are leaving thousands of dollars on the table," he said.

Eligibility is based off of a few categories: financial need, cost of attendance, whether the student is full-time or part-time, and whether or not the student plans to attend school for a full academic year or less. The amount of the grant can also vary per student depending on these criteria. Pell grants can also be received multiple times, meaning that students who remain eligible for the grant can receive the assistance for up to 12 semesters. The maximum amount of the award for the 2014-2015 school year was $5,730, and has since risen to $5,775 for the 2015-2016 school year.

Great for: Prospective students who require financial aid, and, as a bonus, the extra incentive to complete their degrees.

WGU Online Scholarship

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Western Governors University is an online, accredited university that offers bachelor's and master's degrees in areas like nursing, teaching, business, and information technology. Its programs are accelerated and specifically designed for adults looking to go back to school while working full time. Students who are enrolled in, and will graduate from, a community college that participates in a partnership with WGU are eligible for a tuition discount if they choose to continue at WGU for their bachelor's degrees. These prospective students are also eligible to apply for the WGU Community College Partner Scholarship, which has a maximum value of $2,000. While this doesn't initially seem like much, when compared with WGU's affordable tuition (approximately $2,980 for a six-month term), this scholarship will cover almost all of the costs.

Great for: Adults looking to go back to school while also saving time and money.

BusinessPlanToday’s Scholarship Program

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A company offering do-it-yourself business plan software, BusinessPlanToday offers a scholarship award in the amount of $1,000 to one applicant. In order to be considered, applicants are to provide a business plan executive summary, and be deemed the best on the grounds of being the most original, creative, unique and persuasive. For more details, check out the program's website.

Great for: Students presently studying, or looking to study, business and are creative and innovative.

Create-A-Greeting-Card Annual Scholarship Contest

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Every year, from mid-April through mid-February, The Gallery Collection accepts unique, original greeting card submissions from prospective students for a chance to a win a $10,000 scholarship. The basic rules are simple: only one entry per person, submissions must include a photo, piece of artwork, or computer graphic for the greeting card illustration (all original), and follow the appropriate design format. All students enrolled in an academic program that works toward a degree or diploma, at any time during the second half of the year, are eligible to enter. Applicants must also be at least 14 years old. Check the website for additional eligibility criteria and test your hand at greeting card creation.

Great for: Artistic students looking to earn scholarship money by showcasing their creativity.

Twitter’s 140 Scholarship

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Get rewarded for all of those tweets you send on a daily basis! The requirements of this scholarship, according to the rules posted on CollegeScholarships.org, are as follows: "In 140 characters or less, write a tweet highlighting how we can use Twitter to improve the world." Then tweet the post to the handle "@scholarship" with the hashtag "#scholarship" and follow @scholarship! The winner of the scholarship will receive $1,400, and the first and second runners-up will receive $140.00 each.

Great for: Social media-savvy college students who want to use the media for the greater good.

Nordstrom Cares Scholarship

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While many of us are aware of the array of sartorial offerings Nordstrom has, many are unaware of diverse ways the company gives back to the community. The Nordstrom Cares scholarship program is for students planning to attend an accredited college for four years. The scholarship is in the amount of $10,000 per recipient and is broken up into four equal segments of $2,500 per year. The award is eligible to 80 high school juniors who carry a GPA of at least 2.7, volunteer in their communities or participate in extracurricular activities, live and attend school in a state or U.S. territory with a Nordstrom or Nordstrom Rack store location and plan on applying for financial assistance in order to attend college.

Great for: Exemplary students who happen to live in the same area as a Nordstrom location.

Ayn Rand Institute Essay Contest

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On the homepage for the Ayn Rand Institute, there is a quotation by Ayn Rand herself: "Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness -- not pain or mindless self-indulgence -- is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values." For those gifted students looking to win financial support through writing essays on topics relating to some of Rand's most popular novels, the institute offers yearly scholarships that consist of 600 prizes and $100,000 in prize money each year.

Great for: Students who excel in reading, analyzing and writing about the works of literary greats in a mature manner.

The Alexia Foundation Student Grants

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According to its website, the Alexia Foundation's basis and goals are "promoting world peace and cultural understanding." To qualify for the grant, students are advised to submit quality photo or multimedia stories relating to the foundation's goals. The grants are awarded in order of first place, second place and awards of excellence thereafter. While the specific details of the awards vary depending on whether the winners are graduate or undergraduate students, they are all in relation to money towards classes and/or tuition. In order to be eligible for the grant, students must be enrolled full time in an accredited college or university in the United States or in a degree program abroad. Check the site for the rules and requirements.

Great for: Photography and art students who exemplify knowledge of world peace and want to create a body of meaningful work.

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