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Millions in Canadian scholarship dollars going unclaimed

Pay Day

Students are graduating with gross levels of debt these days. However, it’s possible they could soften the financial hit they take to pursue post-secondary education by doing some homework when it comes to finding and applying for scholarships— many of which go unrewarded across the country year after year.

Rob Henderson, president and CEO of Studentawards, an online database of scholarships, bursaries and other financial offers to students, says that most prizes that are attached to an institution get snapped up. Many of them are merit-based and often awarded automatically, without students even having to apply. It’s all the other awards out there, offered by private companies, that are often overlooked.

“Studentawards has $82 million in financial awards available to students across the country per year, and those are almost exclusively non-institution-based scholarships, bursaries that sit outside of educational system, which are already earmarked,” Henderson says. “No official study has been done on how much goes unrewarded, but … we estimate more than $15 million goes unclaimed each year. That number is probably low.”

A few reasons explain why so much cash is sitting untouched, but it mostly boils down to poor marketing by private companies.

“There are a lot of employer scholarships that major corporations have for their employees’ children, but a lot of people don’t know they exist, so the budgets aren’t exhausted,” Henderson says.

There’s also a misconception about eligibility.

“A lot of people don’t understand that over 50 per cent [of available scholarships] aren’t merit-based,” Henderson notes. “A lot of students don’t even look because they think ‘I’m not an athlete,’ or ‘I’m not an A-plus-plus student,’ so they say ‘Why bother?’ But the reality is there’s money out there for them for school.”

He points to some of the more unusual scholarships that have appeared on the Studentawards site. There’s one for tall people attending their first year of college (from the Tall Clubs International Foundation; to qualify, men have to be over 6’2” and women over 5’10”).  There was one that asked candidates to share their prom story: whoever had the worst night got the prize. There’s even one for D students.

“Another reason [scholarships go unrewarded is that many people don’t realize that they’re offered throughout the academic year, not just in September. “There’s a bit of a spike in August and September, but scholarships are awarded 12 months out of the year,” Henderson says.

Don't give up on free money

Darran Fernandez, associate director of enrollment services at the University of British Columbia, urges students not to be discouraged if they don’t receive money from the institution they’re attending.

“Outside of the institution, there’s much more in terms of external awards provided by banks and other organizations,” Fernandez says, noting that UBC gave out nearly $78 million in scholarships for the fiscal year ending in 2013. “We know anecdotally that those [external] dollars are not maxed out on an annual basis.”

Fernandez suggests students visit websites such as CanLearn, where they have access to comprehensive resources related to free money.

“We encourage them to visit the site for half an hour a week and set up their application and scan for awards,” he says. “Having a conversation about money is not easy, whether it’s with yourself or friends and family or an adviser here on campus. But seeking scholarships provides an opportunity to have that conversation so that they can more easily have a conversation with a financial adviser for the long term.”

Not all awards are worth thousands, but as any student knows, every dollar counts. Henderson recalls one heart-warming story of a recipient who won $250.

“We got this unbelievable thank-you video because she explained that she had run out of money, and her parents didn’t have any money, and that $250 allowed her to buy groceries that month to get her through exams until she got a job,” he says.