Realities Behind Unclaimed Scholarships for College

Updated January 31, 2020
Education expense or student loan

Maybe you've heard from your friends that there are many unclaimed scholarships lurking out there, just waiting for you to snap them up to pay for college. Perhaps you've received a sales pitch from a firm promising to find thousands of dollars to fund your college education-all for a fee, of course. Unfortunately, most financial aid professionals agree that unclaimed scholarships are more myth than reality. While some do exist, they may have restrictions and requirements that many students do not meet.

In Search of Unclaimed Scholarships

Don't waste money on search services that promise to find unclaimed scholarships for a fee. Scholarship programs have specific deadlines. If a scholarship recipient turns down or somehow becomes disqualified for the award, chances are the group awarding the scholarship will award the funds to the next most qualified candidate who applied prior to the deadline.

  • The only true unclaimed scholarships would be ones for which there were no qualified applicants, but that wouldn't be known until after the deadline. The organization might decide to extend or re-open the deadline, or they might decide not to make an award in the current year. They wouldn't just give away funds outside the parameters of their program.
  • If you're looking for unclaimed scholarships in hopes of securing funds to help offset the cost of your college education, then you'll need to try to identify potential funding sources that went unclaimed in previous years. However, the fact that a scholarship was unclaimed the year before doesn't mean that it won't be claimed this year.
  • There's not a place where this information is aggregated. You'd need to contact various scholarship programs one at a time to ask if their funds went unclaimed the year before, which is not the best use of your time when looking for money to help pay for college. A better option is to identify all college scholarship programs for which you may be qualified and apply for them.

Types of Scholarships

College scholarships fall into two categories: public and private. Unclaimed scholarships generally fall into the private scholarship category, but could potentially be in both.

Public Scholarships: Typically Have Many Qualified Applicants

Typically well-funded and open to any interested applicant, public scholarships provide partial or full funding for a college or graduate school education. Some require essays in addition to the application or other demonstrations of student willingness and desire for the scholarship. Excellent grades, leadership abilities, and other factors may be part of the evaluation process for awards. Many target students with particular aptitudes, interests, or majors. Students should check into public scholarships from for-profit corporations, as well as non-profit organizations. For example:

  • The Burger King MacLamore Foundation offers a WHOPPER Scholarship that is open to all high school seniors in the U.S. and Canada who are enrolling in an undergraduate program and meet certain academic criteria.
  • The Prudential Spirit of Service scholarship is open to all U.S. middle school and high school students. Operated in conjunction with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), awards are based on community service. There are many other scholarships for community service participants.

While it's rare that public scholarships go unclaimed, if you are interested in an unusual major, career path or geographic location, research scholarships in your field. The more rare or unusual the field, the better the chances that some scholarship money might remain unclaimed.

Scholarship application form

Private Scholarships: Potential Source of Unclaimed Scholarships

Private scholarships provide full or partial tuition assistance but are only open to students who meet selective criteria. Private scholarship funds offer students the best chance of finding unclaimed funds, as such programs are often little known. While public scholarships have hundreds, if not thousands, of applicants, by their very nature, private scholarships limit the applicant pool to students who meet very specific and selective criteria. The applicant pool for can be very small, and some years there may be no qualified applicants.

  • Some colleges and universities offer scholarships for various majors, including common disciplines like engineering and education as well as highly specialized ones. The college financial aid office can provide information to interested students along with the appropriate application forms.
  • Some companies offer scholarship money to families through the workplace as part of the company's benefit plan. Parents should check with their Human Resources department to see if tuition reimbursement or scholarships are offered for dependent children. This type of scholarship falls most frequently into the "unclaimed scholarship" category. The reason is simple. If not enough people at the company have children embarking on their college education, monies set aside for the fund remain untapped in that particular year.
  • Other private scholarships come from groups, clubs, civic associations, professional associations, churches or other groups. They may have special criteria for the scholarship, such as scholarships for minorities or geographically based scholarships.

With a little research, you may find scholarship opportunities that are often overlooked for which you meet the criteria. Some of them may actually be unclaimed scholarships that nobody applies for who meets the qualifications. Whether or not that's the case, you have a chance of winning the award if you meet the criteria.

Finding Your Pot of Gold

The criteria for scholarships that go unclaimed is often unusual, and sometimes downright weird - leading to obscure scholarships often left unclaimed. There are, for example, private scholarships for students of various ethnic heritages with very specific interests. Often wealthy donors or families created these scholarships to honor a deceased family member whose interests and passions were unique or eccentric. Free scholarship listings provide easy ways to find many sources of scholarships, including the ones that are most likely to be overlooked. With diligence and perseverance, you can find them on your own. Try the following tips to help guide your search:

  • Start with your school college counseling or guidance counseling office. If your school doesn't have one, ask a teacher if the district has central counseling resources. These offices frequently subscribe to books, publications and databases that aren't available to the general public but contain a wealth of resources to help you.
  • Ask your parents or guardians if their employers offer scholarships. Because companies may not have many applicants in a given year, this can be a great source of unclaimed scholarships. The company's human resources office is the place to inquire about such programs.
  • If you have a job, ask your employer if your company offers scholarships or other financial assistance for employees who are seeking higher education. Walmart, for example, offers scholarships to associates. You may be surprised to find that your after-school or summer job could lead to a scholarship opportunity or tuition reimbursement program, as well as continued employment while you're in college.
  • Visit your local public library. Libraries too, like guidance offices, contain reference collections that include college and scholarship guides to help students. As a librarian for help guiding your search.
  • Call the financial aid offices of colleges to which you are applying. Explain what you need and request scholarship information and forms to apply. Financial aid offsets many aspects of college tuition, and financial aid offices are the hub for such funds on each college campus.
  • The College Board is a 100+ year old not-for-profit organization that helps students prepare for college. Their website contains great information to help you pay for college. Their free search tool lists hundreds of reliable sources for scholarships.

Searching for Funds to Pay for School

What's important when you're searching for money to offset the cost of school is to identify the various programs for which you are qualified. Money may be available in the form of scholarships or financial aid, such as student loans or grant funds. Rather than chasing the myth of unclaimed scholarships, focus on how to win scholarships for which you are eligible.

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Realities Behind Unclaimed Scholarships for College