Gabrielle McCormick speaks to parents and students about how her company, Scholarship Informer, can help find funding to pay for college. (HANDOUT PHOTO)

Woman found funds for all her college years, now helps others do it

Gabrielle McCormick pinned her hopes on an athletic scholarship paying for her college education. Then, she tore her achilles tendon.

So she pivoted, and found enough money to fund her education through her doctorate, which she’s in the last stages of finishing.

She started a company, Scholarship Informer, to help others graduate debt-free as well.

“I just like being able to listen to people in a place of frustration, worry and overwhelm, and being able to give them some hope,” said McCormick, now 28. “I try to be the person I wish I had access to.”

As high school seniors begin getting acceptance letters for colleges, so begin conversations about ways to pay for the next four years. With college costs continuing to rise, students and their families often find themselves thinking creatively to pay the bill. McCormick’s is one of several companies out there assisting students to find ways to pay for college before the first day on campus.

“Essentially, sports was my plan,” she said. But, when she realized it wasn’t to be, “That’s when I really had to figure out: ‘How are you going to pay for college because now your parents don’t have the money to send you.’ ”

Resources were outdated, McCormick said, adding that she came across a book on scholarships written in the mid-1990s.

Before she started classes at Texas A&M University-Commerce in Commerce, Texas, she’d been awarded enough scholarship money to pay for her bachelor’s degree, which she received in professional accountancy.

“I told myself whatever I get, it needs to carry me through undergrad, grad school and at the doctoral level,” she said. “That was my ultimate goal. A lot of students they only think about the first year. I knew whatever money they offer you, go after more.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 20.4 million students were expected to enroll in American colleges and universities this past fall, an increase of more than 5.1 million since the fall of 2000. For the 2015-2016 school year, according to NCES, the average price for undergraduate tuition, fees, room, and board was $16,757 annually for public institutions, $43,065 at private nonprofit institutions, and $23,776 at private for-profit institutions.

With the stresses of senior year — admissions tests, classes, finals, prom to name a few — many experts suggest using the winter break to game-plan funding for post-secondary education.

“It’s one of those things where a lot of parents we’ve found delay that conversation and figure out what to do as deadlines start rolling around,” said Bhavin Parikh, CEO and founder of Magoosh, an online portal that helps students prepare for college admissions and other tests. “You have a break where you can dedicate some time on this.”

Jessica Johnson’s The Scholarship Academy, based in Atlanta, holds scholarship boot camps across the country and trains high school counselors on a curriculum established to guide students through finding college funding. With scholarships available for students as early as second grade, conversations about funding a student’s college experience should happen well before senior year — and include the whole family.

She recalled a trip with her mother to the bank, where mom had a bank statement printed out for the two to peruse. “She said she didn’t have any money to send me,” said Johnson, a 2004 graduate of Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, D.C. “It’s important that families look at it as a family affair.”

An aunt who saw McCormick’s success at finding money told her to write everything down, hoping it would be a guide for the aunt’s young child. In college, adults on internships would inquire how she was able to pay for all her education.

“When so many people keep asking you the same question over and over, I knew I needed to create something … for people that they can utilize on all three levels,” she said.

In the past few years, McCormick estimates hundreds of students have been successful getting college funding using the tools on her website, be it additional scholarships or increased awards or financial aid payouts.

“We’ve had students win from $500 to going to school and not paying anything,” she said.