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  • Make sure you can commit to any scholarship requirements before accepting an award.
  • Know the scope of the scholarship. That includes the offer amount, length, and if you need to renew the award each year.
  • Contact your school’s financial aid office to understand how accepting scholarships could affect your financial aid package.

Scholarships can help offset the cost of college. They offer free money that you can put toward tuition, housing, living expenses, and more. And with the average tuition and fees at a public four-year college at close to $11,000 per year as reported by the College Board®, earning a scholarship(s) can offer some relief. While scholarships can ease the burden of paying for college and make you less dependent on student loans, they sometimes come with strings attached. If you've been offered a scholarship, consider the following to decide if accepting it is the right move:

1. What are the scholarship requirements?

The most common scholarship requirements include maintaining a certain GPA and enrolling in a minimum number of course hours. However, some scholarships may look beyond academics. That may mean making a commitment to:

  • Working on-campus a certain number of hours per week while you're enrolled in school
  • Participating in an internship or residency program
  • Volunteering or performing community service for a set number of hours weekly or monthly
  • Working in a specific career field after graduation
  • Maintaining a personal code of morality or ethics
  • Attending religious services regularly

You may need to meet the commitments each year you are in school to continue receiving the scholarship funds in the future.

So, before accepting an award, be sure you can commit to all requirements that may apply—and that the financial reward is worth the trade-off. For example, some scholarships can impact your living situation. The New York State Excelsior Scholarship, for instance, requires you to live and work in New York state after graduation for the same length of time you received funding. Similarly, the University of South Florida Housing Resident Scholarship doesn't allow you to live off-campus for the duration of the scholarship.

2. How much funding is available?

You also need to look at how much funding is being offered to you, and how long will it last. Some scholarships are awarded on an annual basis. After your freshman year, you may need to reapply or renew your scholarship for additional funding. Others are designed to cover you from your first day of school until graduation. You need to know how long you can count on scholarship funding, assuming you continue to meet its requirements.

3. How will the scholarship affect my financial aid?

If you completed the FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), then your financial aid award could be affected if you accept scholarships. Federal award rules state that the amount of need-based aid you can receive can't be more than your actual financial need. Aid that isn't need-based can also be affected because it’s calculated using your cost of attendance minus any aid you've already received.

If you’re awarded scholarships that exceed your calculated need by more than $300, schools are required to reduce your financial aid package. Schools have some flexibility in how they do this (e.g., reducing grants versus loans), so it's important to clarify how scholarships could affect your financial aid before accepting them.

4. Can I change my mind about a scholarship?

You might accept a scholarship that ends up not working out. If you receive the money and then have second thoughts about the requirements—or no longer meet the eligibility standards—you may be expected to repay some or all of the funding you received. You might also have to find ways to bridge any resulting funding gaps. That may mean taking out additional student loans. In any case, you can and should continue applying for new scholarships and grants throughout your college experience.

The main takeaway is that it’s always best to read the fine print before accepting a scholarship. That can help you decide if it’s right for you, especially since it could affect your financial aid package.

College Board® is a trademark registered by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, Discover® Student Loans.

FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.

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