Students search Web for financial aid

Alison Sikora knew she wanted to attend Fairfield University to study science. Her father had graduated from Fairfield with a degree in chemistry, so she thought the school would offer plenty of classes on her favorite subject.

“I used to go on college trips with my father, and I really fell in love with the campus, so I pretty much knew my sophomore year that I wanted to go here. It was my top choice,” said Sikora, 18, of Middlebury, Conn.

Like many students, she had concerns about paying for her education. At Fairfield in Fairfield, Conn., tuition and fees average about $23,000 a year.

“My parents knew I wanted to go (to Fairfield) and created a savings for me, but when you think about it, that is a lot of money for my parents to send.” Sikora said.

Sikora needed to find financial aid. After a suggestion from a friend, Sikora began looking online for scholarships when she came across FastWeb (, a scholarship search site.

FastWeb has had about 18 million users since its launch in 1995, and its database has over 800,000 scholarships that total more than $1 billion.

Online scholarship searches can help students who are dealing with the rising cost of college. For tuition at four-year public colleges, students pay an average of $4,081, up 9.6 percent from a year ago, according to a report released last week by the College Board. At four-year private colleges, students pay an average of $18,273 a year, up 5.8 percent from last year.

Sikora said she “spent a lot of time, sometimes 30 minutes to an hour each day, searching through the various scholarships (FastWeb) had,” but it was time well spent. As a result of her search, she won the Connecticut Innovations Science Technology Scholarship for $12,000.

Now a freshman at Fairfield studying biology/pre-med Sikora is glad she searched online.

“I was really surprised because I just applied and I wondered if I would even get it,” she said.

Several other scholarship search sites, such as SuperCollege (, SRNexpress ( and BrokeScholar ( also have free searches.

While these sites are legitimate, some are not.

The Federal Trade Commission and Congress passed the College Scholarship Fraud Prevention Act of 2000 to prevent online scams.

“In 2000 we did a surf of the Web called Scholarscam and found 37 sites that had suspicious claims,” said Robin Spector, an attorney for the Bureau of Consumer Protection. “As a result, we sent out warning letters to these companies, and they either changed their claims, and some even shut down, so we did not have to bring in any law enforcement.”

The FTC continues to monitor Web sites that offer student awards.

“It is possible that we are going to do another scholarship surf in the future, but what we tell consumers is that the number of people who get substantial money is pretty small, so they should watch claims that promise thousands of dollars,” Spector said.

Many college advisers also warn students about the possibilities of fraudulent sites.

“To help students avoid scams, we send out scholarship information to them and recommend sites,” said Brian Leesang, director of financial aid at American University in Washington, D.C. “We make sure that the sites are reputable, and we have them on our preferred list because with the amount of scholarships and the amount of scams, it’s important that we get the word out to students and point them in the right direction.”

Many corporations that provide scholarships are pleased with the results of search sites.

“We receive close to 100,000 applicants each year so (being online is) definitely doing a good job of getting the word out to students” said Carolyn Norton, program facilitator of Coca-Cola’s scholar program, which is listed on FastWeb.

“We have been online for about three or four years, and we are encouraging students to go online as well because we are progressing toward being strictly online,” Norton said.

College advisers can also see the unique benefits of online scholarship searches.

“In the past, students had to go to the library and search through mounds and mounds of books just to find awards that fit them,” Leesang said. “Now all students have to do is go to these sites and type in things such as their major or state or if it’s a minority scholarship their ethnicity, and the site will just pull up all the scholarships that match their profile.”

Be Cautious of Online Scholarship Searches

The Federal Trade Commission offers these tips for students searching online for scholarships:

Guarantees: If the site “guarantees a scholarship or your money back,” it is probably a scam. No site can guarantee a scholarship, and with so many students applying there is tough competition for even the smallest award. If the site is asking for a small fee, chances are it’s not legitimate.

Exclusives: If the site tells consumers that they have exclusive scholarships that cannot be found anywhere else, that site could be a fraud. With all the data on the Web, its highly unlikely the site has something that others do not.

Personal information: If the site requests your credit card number or bank account information, be careful. Scholarships are free awards so in general most searches for these awards are also free.

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service