High school students don’t have to be the next Albert Einstein or Michael Jordan to get scholarship money to help pay for college.

More than $64 billion in aid was available to students and their families in the 1998-99 school year.

Rather than wait for acceptance letters and printed scholarship material to arrive in the mail, students can get an early start on securing valuable financial-aid information through such Web sites as FastWeb.com, Collegequest, College-Scholarships.com and SRNExpress.

Bear in mind, some shortcomings exist with online searches. These sites provide good information on merit and national awards, but don’t cover all the bases. Additionally, admission experts warn of online scams.

That’s why it’s important for students and parents to stick with well-known sites or operate under a nationally recognized group with a good reputation, said Dallas Martin, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Browsing for scholarships

College-bound kids typically assume that outstanding grades and strong test scores are needed for scholarship success. Yet for those who aren’t an absolute top scholar, the Internet offers a way to locate funding from both national sources and community-based organizations, as well as universities.

Someone who’s determined to find scholarship money uses the Internet, “but a really determined person also goes to the local library because a lot of local organizations will put up postings and listings,” said Peggy O’Neill, an analyst at research firm Neilson Net Ratings.

The U.S. Dept. of Education’s web site offers a wealth of information on grants, loans, work-study programs and tax credits.

Scholarship seekers have varying degrees of need. Web site CollegeisPossible.org says about half of all full-time undergraduates at four-year colleges last school year faced tuition charges before student aid of less than $4,000. Another 25 percent attended institutions charging $4,000 to $8,000, while fewer than 6 percent attended institutions with tuition before aid of $20,000 or more.

Student aid can come from a variety of sources, but the majority of funds – 72 percent – are handed out by the federal government. States contribute 6 percent and colleges, universities and private sources supply 22 percent.

While costs may seem daunting, financial aid contributions continue to climb. The CollegeBoard reports that more than $64 billion in total aid from federal, state and institutional sources was available to students and their families in the 1998-99 school year, up 4 percent from a year earlier.


Five-year-old FastWeb is one of the most widely used and trusted scholarship search engines, admission experts say. It matches a student’s profile against a database of 600,000 scholarships for free, said Laureen Grieve, its vice president of content. The average student will get eight to 12 different scholarship matches, she said.

“It’s like classified advertising,” O’Neill said. Sites match students with scholarships based on provided information, making the Web most useful with specific and easy to categorize criteria.

College-bound kids don’t have to be a 4.0 student to qualify for scholarships, Grieve said. The majority of students using FastWeb have a GPA of 3.0 to 3.3. The scholarships available are awarded for merit and high GPA, to members of underrepresented groups, to those living in certain areas of the country and those interested in a particular field of study.

FastWeb also supplies information on college-based scholarships, making students aware of financial aid available at schools they may wish to attend. Search engines such as Yahoo also are useful in locating financial aid information and links to universities.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Web site also hosts a wealth of information about grants, loans, work-study and tax credits and how to apply for them. Students can fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which helps the government determine financial need online.

While sites make matching much more efficient, the challenge still exists for companies like FastWeb to build their database with listings from the local well-contributors Kiwanis Club and Rotary, experts say.

“National databases are okay where you get the merit and some of the national awards, but don’t forget the local [sources], colleges and universities because that expands lots of opportunities for awards,” said Joyce Smith, executive director at the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Be careful

While the bounty of information found on the Web is beneficial, admission experts stress the need for students, parents and school counselors to be alert for potential scams.

“It’s hard to monitor and hard to know which ones are legitimate and which ones aren’t,” Smith said. “Immediately, they start asking personal information: name, address, test scores, family income.”

On the FastWeb site, every student must consent before the company will share their personal information with marketers, Grieve said. “We are very committed to maintaining that degree of permission.”