Going to college
Credit: Morguefile photo by earl53

You've finished high school and you're headed to college. You've received an impressive financial aid package, which makes it possible to attend the school of your dreams. A large chunk of this institutional aid is in the form of merit scholarships.

These scholarships come with some strings attached. Your grades must continue to reflect your academic potential. If they dip below a certain level, there's a good chance this hard-won award will disappear. Some schools give you a chance to turn things around before this happens. But, at some institutes, one bad semester means much higher tuition going forward.

Unfortunately, this happened to the son of one of my friends. In order for him to stay in school, his family will incur a lot more expenses than originally anticipated.

Luckily, he comes from a family that's fairly well off. So he won't have to interrupt his education. But other students aren't so fortunate. Losing their merit money means moving back into their old bedroom.

The young man I'm writing about is brilliant. However, despite his considerable academic talent, he has trouble managing his time. He sailed through high school with little effort. But his more rigorous college courses caught him off guard.

My own daughter also nearly lost her merit money. During her first semester, she severely underestimated the amount of time required to succeed. Coupled with this wake up call was one very exacting professor. Her GPA plummeted to a depth she doesn't want to discuss.

However, she was given one more chance. If she could turn things around, and show improvement the next semester, she'd once again be considered for the scholarship. After jumping through a few hoops, she once again received her merit award.

Make Time to Hit the Books

The need to hit the books
Credit: Morguefile image by chu

Budgeting in Additional Study Time

 The rigors of college are a tripwire for many bright students. This happens because they didn't need to fully apply themselves in high school. So they never developed good study habits.

They must also contend with the distractions of dorm life. In addition, they may be working part time, or more, to help pay tuition. 

This is why many schools do give a one-semester grace period. If students flounder, they get another chance to pull their grades up. Administrators know that freshmen especially are often overwhelmed with their new-found freedom, and that some academic slippage is not uncommon.

Choose Your Professors Wisely

In addition to focusing intently on your studies, you can also take some steps to protect your scholarships. One college professor I know advises students to limit themselves to four courses a semester, especially during their freshman year. He believes this greatly alleviates academic stress.

If you need extra credits, you can always take a relatively easy general education course at a community college during the summer. (Just make sure the college you attend will accept these credits.)

Some students are also carefully choose their classes, doing so only after visiting a web site known as Rate My Professor. Although you may find some inappropriate, and even mean-spirited, comments on this site, you can also determine if the professor gives everyone a 3.0 or much less. If that's the case, you can expect the same type of grade. So you must decide if this will negatively impact your GPA.

Compare Scholarship Offers

If money plays a large factor in your college decision, carefully compare the merit offers from the schools you applied to. They each have various criteria for the continuation of scholarships.

On paper, it might not seem like much of a difference between a 3.2 and a 3.5 lower-limit threshold. However, in practice, it could spell the difference between being able to stay at a particular institute until you graduate, especially if the college you plan to attend is a pricey, private one. 

The type of students who receive the best merit offers typically have several excellent financial aid packages to choose from. It's important you make the best decision, as these kinds of offers will never come your way again.

Have a Contingency Plan

An attractive offer from an elite private university is very exciting. However, if your family doesn't have unlimited finances, it can also be risky. That's because you couldn't afford the $50,000 to $60,000 annual tab without your scholarships.

A public university may offer you a seemingly similar package in terms of out-of-pocket costs. Although the packages may look relatively equal, there's a crucial difference. It would be much easier to meet the total costs, without a scholarship, at a public school. Therefore, losing it would not be as devastating.

If you are risk averse, and your family can't pay full private school tuition, a public university may be a better choice. Even if you have to take out additional loans, if the scholarships disappeared, the gap in your financial aid package is more manageable.

Choosing the right package could have an enormous impact on your educational plans. Nationwide, about 30 percent of all college freshmen don't return for their sophomore year. Among the leading reasons for this is they don't have enough money.