Paying for college is one of the biggest challenges facing many students and their parents. Houston author Gwen Richardson has found one solution to the problem – relying on scholarships for free money.

She said there are thousands of scholarships available, “but knowing the requirements helps the student to zero in on those for which they are qualified.”

Richardson shares her action plan in her book, “101 Scholarship Applications: What it Takes to Obtain a Debt-free College Education.” She compiles new scholarship opportunities throughout the year and releases a new edition of the book each January.

Richardson gives insight into a debt-free college education in a Q&A with the Defender.

Defender: Why did you decide to write “101 Scholarship Applications…”?

Richardson: I had a strong desire for our daughter, Sylvia, to attend college debt-free because nearly every college-educated adult I know over age 40 is still paying college loan payments. I did not want her to be saddled with a huge amount of debt when she was just getting started in life, so I started researching scholarships when she was a 10th grader.

I was not sure if my strategy would succeed but, once Sylvia entered her freshman year fully paid with no debt, I decided to put the information in a book to share with others. Of my seven published books, it is by far the bestseller.

Use of the “101” in the title is a play on words for two reasons: 1) It really does take about 100 scholarship applications to achieve this goal, especially for freshman year; and 2) Beginner’s courses in college use 101 in course title. It’s not quite as daunting as it may seem and a lot of the information is repetitious, and there are some websites where you can submit applications to multiple entities without re-uploading the information.

Defender: What is the number one thing African-Americans should know?

Richardson: Acquiring the funds to attend college debt-free requires hours of painstaking work. Parents need to be actively involved and not leave the process entirely in the student’s hands. Parents should treat the scholarship search and application process like a part-time job, get started during the student’s sophomore year in high school, and involve the student primarily in the essay-writing tasks. Much of the application process is repetitious and requires entry of data into online forms, or completion of applications on paper (which is becoming less and less common).

Defender: How can a student who doesn’t make straight A’s obtain a debt-free education? 

Richardson: Many scholarships do not have a GPA requirement. Those that do often require a minimum 2.5 or 3.0 GPA. The student’s personal story and achievements are as important or more important than the GPA. What about the student’s personal history makes him or her stand out among the pack? This is what parents and students should spend a lot of time determining. Obtaining scholarships is almost like a P/R campaign, especially for some of the high-dollar awards.

Defender: What can students do while in high school?

Richardson: High school students need to understand that all four years are extremely important. Taking Advanced Placement and Dual Credit courses will boost the student’s GPA (as long as a grade of C or above is achieved). Students should apply themselves academically during all four years, as well as participate in extracurricular activities. But the extracurricular activities should be balanced and not distract from accomplishing at least a grade of A or B in every subject.

Defender: Your daughter is a junior in college and has yet to take out a loan. How has that been accomplished?

Richardson: My daughter and I started with a plan and the debt-free college quest is a team effort. She did everything mentioned above and more. She attends an HBCU, North Carolina Central University, and for her freshman year of college, we submitted 90 scholarship applications to different entities. For her sophomore year, we submitted even more – 104. Once she reached junior year, we did not submit quite as many because the larger scholarship awards within her major occur during junior year. Still, we’ve submitted 40 so far and her junior year is almost fully paid.

We also periodically contact the university financial aid office regarding available funds. Students might be surprised that schools receive new funds on a regular basis and timing is important. Contacting them periodically about recent achievements could result in more money for the student.

For example, in 2015 my daughter and I wrote a book for teen girls titled “You Are Wonderfully Made: 12 Life-Changing Principles for Teen Girls to Embrace.” It was nominated for an NAACP Image Award in the Teen category. We contacted the university to let them know about the nomination and Sylvia received a substantial scholarship from the school at a result.

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