Let's be clear: getting a full scholarship is very rare. Fewer than one percent of college applicants end up getting to go for free. It takes more than just being a good student who wrote a good application essay. But still, one percent is still thousands of students a year, so you may want to do some thinking and planning, just in case.
Here's a simple rule to help you know how to think about full scholarships: you should not pass up a full ride. If you apply to a school and they offer you a full scholarship, go to that school.
One of the things that people talk a lot about in college admissions is "right fit." You apply to schools because you think they're a good fit for you. If schools also think you're a good fit, they accept you. And if they really want you, they offer you money to make it easier for you. There is no better measure of a good fit than a school not only accepting you but also offering you a full scholarship. You've found exactly what you're looking for, so don't pass it up. Do Not Pass It Up!
But what about Return on Investment? If another school can give you a larger return on investment, can't it be worth it in the long run to go to that other school, even if it's more expensive? Sure, if you could predict the future with any accuracy. But you can't. Salaries correspond much more highly with your major than which university you go to. You're likely to change your major anyway. And life-changing experiences that happen through fate, chance, luck, Providence, or serendipity aren't limited to top-ranked schools. That's not how fate works. After two years at a small liberal arts college with an amazing English department, I transferred--mostly for financial reasons--to a state university known for math and science. And yet, I ended taking an excellent class with the best professor I've ever met, a nationally recognized Faulkner scholar. And I ended up taking two more classes with her and was mentored by her even years after I graduated. That's how fate works. This is a classic "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" scenario. Especially with something as expensive as college, you should take the known savings over the theoretical higher earnings. Every time. (For more on Return On Investment, read this.)
Another thing to consider very carefully when it comes to scholarships of any size is opportunity cost. Ask yourself and your family: if I take the full scholarship, what will the money we'd otherwise spend on college go to? Maybe it will mean you parents take on less debt and have a more stable financial situation for the next ten years. Maybe it means that your college savings account gets to become your graduate school savings account and you're that much more motivated to do well at college. Maybe you can spend it on nicer housing at college. If you're considering passing up a full ride for another school that will end up costing you $10,000 per year, ask yourself what you like about the more expensive school, and then ask yourself if that's really worth $40,000. It's probably not.
The primary reason that people pass up full scholarships*** is that they get offered a full ride to a Safety School, but they also get accepted to a Reach or Dream School that they can afford. "If I got into the school I really want to attend and I can afford it, why go to that safety school even if it's free?" That's a good point. So let me take my earlier rule and rephrase is slightly: Don't waste your time applying to a school that you wouldn't attend even if it's free. People who make that choice got really lucky, because they obviously chose their safety schools very poorly. A safety school isn't a school that you really don't want to go to but you will if you have to because it's better than trying to look for a job at Home Depot. A safety school is a school that fits your needs and also is very likely to accept you. If you don't think a school is going to fit your needs, then don't bother applying there, even if they have a high acceptance rate. If a safety school does fit your needs, then it's silly to pass up a full scholarship just because you like some other school that fits your needs marginally better. (For more on Safety Schools, read this.)
I understand that this advice is hard to take. When it comes down to choosing between two schools, price isn't the only factor, even if the price of one of the schools is zero. I get it. But here's what I say: accept the "I will not pass up a Full Ride" rule now while it's only hypothetical. Go through the logic and reason of it. And then, if you find yourself in a position to turn down a full scholarship, you can be more reasonable and logical about it. You'll be less swayed by emotion, aspiration, marketing, and branding. You can compare the two schools against your own College Mission Statement and have a rational understanding of just how much better one school is for you and decide it that difference is worth the difference in price.
I think it's perfectly ok to admit that a lot of the resistance to taking this advice is that it's hard to pass up a school that would be impressive in order to take a full scholarship to a less-impressive school. That resistance comes from emotion, and emotions are real and valid. But you also have some tools for working with those emotions. Imagine some super-elite university sells a t-shirt with a magical power--when you wear that t-shirt, people actually believe you go to that school. How much money would you pay for that t-shirt? $1,000? $10,000? $160,000? That dollar amount is your personal margin for when you should take the more impressive school over the free school. The idea that you're going to get some really wonderful job or have some really perfect experience just because you went to a particular college is no less fantastical and unreal as the magic t-shirt.
And speaking of prestige: remember that fewer than one percent of applicants get a full ride. That makes your full ride more exclusive--a whole lot more exclusive--than even Stanford. Be proud of that scholarship.
There's another unlikely but even weirder scenario to think about: what do you do if you get an unsolicited free ride? How do you respond if a school just, out of the blue, offers you a full scholarship even if you didn't apply or have never heard of it? Yes, this actually happens sometimes. Evaluate that school just as you would any other school, without taking into mind the price. If it meets your criteria and is a place you'd apply, then you're done. Congratulations! If the school doesn't make it into your top twenty and isn't a place you want to apply, then you can comfortably say No Thanks.
Full scholarships are rare. You should go ahead and assume you won't get one. But you should plan for one anyway, to help you think about what's really important to you and how much it's really worth to you. And then if you do get the offer, you'll be ready to bask in glory however you see fit.
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*** Yes, yes. Some people pass up a full ride because they're going to take up another full ride they were offered. I get that, but we all understand that's not what we're talking about here.