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More Free College Money Up For Grabs

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) - As the cost of college continues to rise, there is a bit of good news for students when to paying for their education.

Today there is more private merit scholarship money available than ever before.

For Peter Thistle, thinking about college meant thinking about how to pay for college.

"I think paying for college and going to college go hand in hand. You don't want to go into, you know, $200,000 of debt or whatever it may be," said Thistle.

He applied for several private scholarships and won a local merit award to help fund all four years of his education.

"I don't have to worry about what I have to pay for as much, you know, and that, that gives you peace of mind," said Thistle.

He's not alone. In the 2011-2012 school year, students received $6.2 billion in private merit scholarships from foundations, private companies and individuals. That's up from $2.7 billion only four years prior.

Watch Walter Makaula's Report

Max Espinoza of Scholarship America said employers are realizing the importance of investing in the future workforce.

"Private aid can really be a, a lifesaver in terms of filling gaps that families have in financing their college education," said Espinoza.

Private scholarships are just based on finances and grades. Mark Kantrowitz, of Edvisors.com, said the criteria can vary widely.

"Those criteria can involve academic talent, artistic talent, athletic talent or and sometimes just very quirky topics like making a prom costume out of duct tape," said Kantrowitz.

Those interested in private merit scholarships should start by talking with the guidance counselor to find out about local awards and us free online tools like Edvisors.com, FastWeb and the College Board to search scholarship data bases.
Experts say start early. Scholarship America recommends students begin looking as soon as the 9th grade and apply for every scholarship for which they are eligible, including smaller awards which may be less competitive.

"The ideal scholarship candidate is, is somebody who is eager to get a scholarship (laughs) and is going to do the work to, to complete the scholarship process," said Espinoza.

But that work, Kantrowitz adds, should not include paying to be considered for a scholarship.

"Never invest more than a postage stamp to apply for a scholarship or to find out information about scholarships. Scholarships are about giving you money, not about getting money from you," said Kantrowitz.

There are some scholarships you can apply for only after you've enrolled in college and some require recipients to maintain a certain grade point average throughout college to continue to qualify for the prize.

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