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SMART Scholarship for Service - Attend College Tuition Free AND Get a Job

Updated on February 25, 2012

Nearly every day I see a segment about how tuition is rising across the nation. Costs are soaring while students are graduating with record debt, especially at private universities. Everywhere I look people preach statistic this, scary figure that. I must admit I was a bit disappointed to see no one dressed as a tuition bill this Halloween.

Yet it seems for every article discussing the horrors of education costs, there is another with the secret to graduating debt-free. Sounds great, right? Just follow some simple tips and you'll be on your way to financial stability in no time! Just don't make friends; being invited on trips or going out might cost you precious cents. And don't participate in school clubs or activities activities; you need to spend all of your time at a part-time job. Don't worry, though, it's not like you learn anything in your interactions outside of class with other motivated and intelligent peers. Oh, and don't forget to attend a school you never really wanted to go to in the first place. After all, it is the cheapest.


Don't get me wrong, I think all of the tips are extremely valuable lessons in living an appropriately frugal college lifestyle. Anything you can do to reduce expenses will benefit you in the long run. And I definitely support community college and public universities. Instead, I simply do not think sacrificing the college experience is an appropriate solution to the problem--especially when better alternatives exist.


Win the Lottery!

Clearly the best alternative is to simply win the lottery. On your 18th birthday, go to the gas station, buy a scratch off ticket, and win. College = paid!

Or, how about you apply to every scholarship you find. After all, the Law of Large Numbers states that if you expect to win, all you have to do is apply to a whole bunch and it will happen! Add up your winnings and once again: college = paid!

I was never one for statistics, but I imagine unless you are the next Einstein, both of those alternatives are extremely unlikely to happen. I'm not trying to be cynical, just realistic. When I was heading off to college, I applied to dozens of scholarships. They averaged about $1000 each and even if I had won every one, I would have still struggled to cover the costs of even one year of private university tuition. I applaud those lucky few who win the most prestigious (read: largest) scholarships. But the rest of us need a more reasonable alternative.

SMART Scholarship Disciplines

- Electrical Engineering
- Geosciences
- Industrial and Systems Engineering (Technical tracks only)
- Information Sciences
- Materials Science and Engineering
- Mathematics
- Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering
- Biosciences
- Chemical Engineering
- Chemistry
- Civil Engineering
- Cognitive, Neural, and Behavioral Sciences
- Computer and Computational Sciences
- Mechanical Engineering
- Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering
- Nuclear Engineering
- Oceanography
- Operations Research
- Physics

ROTC for Civilians

Enter the scholarship for service.

The idea here is you get your school expenses paid in exchange for accepting a job. That's right: not only do you graduate debt-free, but you graduate into a steady, well-paying job. And for good measure, they throw in some additional perks like books, health insurance, and a salary.

Such scholarships might sound fantastical, but a number of them are offered by the U.S. government.. The military's ROTC program is one example, but there are additional opportunities for those who do not wish to join the armed forces.

I am intimately familiar with one such program: the Department of Defense's Science Mathematics And Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship. Or, as I like to call it, "ROTC for Civilians." This program will cover the costs for a bachelors, masters, or doctoral degree and can be awarded for any length of study. In addition to tuition costs and fees, recipients receive a book allowance, health insurance, summer internships, and a $25,000 - $41,000 cash award each year. What's the catch? You are given a civilian job in a DoD laboratory or agency and must work there for the same amount of time you were funded. Get funded for your senior year of undergraduate and you'll be required to work one year for the DoD. An entire 5-year PhD? You're signing up for the next 10 years of your life.

Other opportunities beyond SMART include the Department of Homeland Security's Undergraduate Scholarship Program, the National Security Agency's Stokes Educational Scholarship Program, the Federal Cyber Service: Scholarship for Service, and the CIA's Undergraduate Scholarship Program. Please note that each of these programs offer a slightly different award and have different application and service requirements. It is important to make sure they are appropriate for you before applying.

Would you consider working for the federal government in exchange for a college scholarship?

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But while the scholarship programs are certainly an amazing deal, they also raise many uncertanties amongst potential applicants. What if I'm interested in subjects other than those required? How do I know I want to work for the government? Isn't it unreasonable to commit X number of years before I really know what I'm doing?

Some of the programs put restrictions on your field of study. SMART, for example, is only suitable for those seeking a degree in a science or technical field. But it is important to remember that most colleges will let you (and sometimes require you) to take classes outside your degree. There are plenty of opportunities to explore alternative interests, and often times these interests can be brought into your future work.

As for the service commitment, it will largely come down to the individual. It's impossible to say for sure that government service is where you belong, but you can't know until you try. The average employee changes jobs every few years. So why not start out in a very stable position while you determine what's best? Trust me: when the end of your degree nears and your peers are scrambling for any job, you'll be glad yours is already secure.

If the length of the commitment is what's truly worrisome, wait a year or two. Apply for financial aid, apply for scholarships, work, etc. Take advantage of many of the other tips on attending college on the cheap. Soon you will have a better idea of your own interests. And if you don't? Apply anyway because then the decision on what to do after graduation is already decided! Plus, delaying your application will result in a shorter commitment.

The Ultimate College Scholarship

The federal worforce is rapidly aging and needs fresh talent. These scholarship programs were started to fill just that need with skilled and motivated individuals. With hundreds of spots available, they are not just another one-off scholarship.

If you are getting ready to head off to college, currently in school, considering the pursuit of an advanced degree, or just want to work for the federal government, you really should check out these programs. While not necessarily for everyone, they offer a great deal of value in return for a very reasonable commitment.

Plus, now you'll have time to attend all those


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