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Release date: March 21

Scholarship locater helps make college more affordable for students

In many respects, Perri McDonald is a matchmaker. But instead of hooking up couples for love, her matches involve hooking up folks with money.

As scholarship coordinator at Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, McDonald is responsible for helping students apply for funding that helps them finance their education. This happens in several ways.

For one, McDonald holds the keys to many of the university's endowed scholarships, which are awarded annually based on interest from invested funds. Some of those awards come with strict criteria, such as field of study or intended career goals, while others just carry minimum standards for grade point averages and full-time status.

Also, McDonald is the recipient of numerous random scholarship applications that come in from various organizations, companies or other entities. In those instances, criteria may be fairly specific - one scholarship is just for women over 50 going back to school; one is for students from a particular county in Texas - and that's when McDonald's matchmaking powers come into play.

"I usually check with other Financial Aid staff or the admissions office in case they are aware of students that fit the bill for these scholarships and need funds," she said, adding that she has been successful at finding students to fit the profile and many have received the scholarships in question.

As a member of the Texas Independent College Fund, Wayland receives many notices of private scholarship funds available nearly for the asking. McDonald has been personally involved in seeing several students receive funding through TICF, many of which are substantial, annually renewable awards.

The biggest key, she said, is just making your needs known to those who might be able to help.

"I usually don't have to hunt them down; if they have need, they'll come see me. I have a lot of students who just come in and ask if I have any scholarships available," she said. "Most of them I can help. There's obviously no guarantee, but at least they can apply and have a better chance."

With education costs rising nationwide, parents and prospective students may feel as if private education is out of their reach. But McDonald points out that for those who are persistent and take a proactive approach at finding funds, success usually follows.

She touted services like Wiredscholar.com and FastWeb.com as online resources to help track down scholarships based on a student's personal qualifications. She also recommends general web searches for companies or organizations that might offer scholarships or checking with local or hometown civic clubs that give scholarships.

For prospective and current students, McDonald encourages checking with the academic divisions in your chosen major field since many of them have departmental scholarship funds that could be awarded. Many schools, like Wayland, may also offer hefty scholarships for incoming students based on standardized test scores and those can make a great dent in the college bill.

"It's really important for these high school students to take their ACT or SAT seriously and do well. If they don't do well the first time, they need to take it again," she said, adding that scholarships for incoming freshmen often are based on those test scores. "You don't want to sink your boat before you get it in the water."

McDonald also urges students and parents not to get discouraged based on the findings of the federal financial aid applications. Though a family might fall into the category of low financial need, she said there are still plenty of scholarships that are not based on need at all but on other criteria.

"It's not all about the numbers," she said. "I get to know the students, too, and their circumstances and am often able to help those who make their situations known."

Cindy Rogers, a senior from Azle, is a strong advocate of keeping in touch with the university's financial aid office. Struggling with mounting student loans and received no federal aid, Rogers said she began seeking out financial help. Admissions director Shawn Thomas mentioned a scholarship coming open through Coca-Cola for first generation college students. Rogers applied through the financial aid office and received a $2,500 per semester award that is renewable until she graduates. She estimates the total scholarship will amount to about $20,000, meaning a substantial reduction in the amount of loans she and her parents will have to pay.

"My family is able to take less student and parent loans," she said of the scholarship. "It also helps me maintain a good GPA in order to keep it."

Cost and funding for college is probably one of the main concerns for parents and prospective students, but recent data from the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities reflects that private schools are seeing aid awards rise as well. For the 1999-2000 school year, 84 percent of full-time undergraduates received some sort of aid, including federal, state and institutional grants, loans and scholarships, with the average amount of aid received totaling $13,700.

The figures at Wayland are similar, with 85 percent of full-time undergrads receiving aid of some sort, with average aid amount totaling $9,484. And with Wayland's annual costs being substantially lower than many private Christian schools nationwide - one year of tuition and fees, room and board and books (estimate) is about $10,000 - students don't have to win the lottery or discover gold to make higher education a reality.

Determining costs up front and seeking out funding from various sources before classes begin are two ways new students can avoid the stress of having to worry about paying for college while trying to pay attention to studies. And all that takes is a little effort beforehand, McDonald said. Keeping in touch with your school's financial aid office also can be beneficial.

"It's so neat when we are able to award students scholarship money and they are so appreciative," she said. "They have the ability and talent, just not the finances. This way, we take some of that burden away."