By Christopher J. Gearon

With more and more students in need, finding extra college aid can be a crapshoot

The celebration of La'Nita Johnson's acceptance to Pepperdine University had no sooner ended last spring than the reality of the annual $52,000 bill began to sink in. "Right now, I'm in the process of filling a $32,000 gap," says Johnson, of Powder Springs, Ga., who secured $20,000 from Pepperdine but no other financial aid. Johnson had struck out in eight big scholarship contests and was nervously awaiting word on several others, ranging from $250 to $2,000. "I thought I had a good chance" with a 3.45 GPA and 1200 SAT scores, she says. "Who are these other kids applying for scholarships?"

One of them is Lorrie Folsom of Kansas City, Kan., who is not going to Rockhurst University after applying for nearly 50 awards and snagging only two worth $750 total. "That was really discouraging," she says. Folsom will instead live at home to attend the more affordable University of Missouri-Kansas City . Folsom and Johnson aren't alone. Demand for 1.5 million private scholarships worth some $3.4 billion jumped about 20 percent this year while funding is "flat to slightly increasing," says college financing guru Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of and

"We're seeing more applications from students from high-income families, and we're seeing more applications from students whose parents have been laid off or downsized," says Ned Hertzenberg, who heads the Cincinnati Scholarship Foundation. And many of those applicants are bringing high GPAs with them. How to beat the field? Applying for several smaller scholarships rather than large national awards is one approach.

Consider that you are competing against 50,000 valedictorians and salutatorians each year, Kantrowitz says. Persistence is essential, too. Students typically apply for four or five awards, but don't "put in the work for 100," he says. Pay attention to details and deadlines. "Don't give any organization an easy excuse to reject you," notes Cathy Simoneaux, director of the financial aid office at Loyola University New Orleans .

Match up.

Those best positioned to snag private scholarships in this ultracompetitive environment include "students who are extremely talented and people with a lot of depth, not just breadth," Kantrowitz says. A track record to back up a talent or passion is key. The correct match is important, too. The College Board's scholarship search site,, and can help there. True stories of overcoming adversity are always attention grabbers, notes Colleen Quint, executive director of the Mitchell Institute, which awards scholarships to Maine students.

Meanwhile, watch for new sources.

With the economy tanking in 2008, "we thought it would impact low-income students disproportionately," says Michael L. Lomax, United Negro College Fund president. So in March 2009, the fund launched its Campaign for Emergency Student Aid to help keep students enrolled in historically black colleges and universities. The campaign has raised $7.5 million and provided 4,000 awards so far.

Other new options range from the Don't Mess With Texas Scholarship to the Women in International Trade Scholarship, but Kantrowitz warns that as well as being untested, these scholarships might be so specific as to be a waste of time and effort for most students.

As for other alternatives, Chaneka Franklin of Boston signed on with AmeriCorps, putting off college for more than a year, in part because of a $5,350 education award that volunteers receive. Tammy Nash, a counselor at Nashville's Big Picture High School, notes that students in an average public school "are more open to the military, even in wartime" in hopes of funding an education.

Scholarship prospects continued to dim for Johnson as summer arrived, and her parents agreed to chip in another $20,000. The rest? "I will unfortunately be forced to take out loans." She'll have plenty of company there, too.

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The Great Scramble for College Scholarships