There are only a few free web tools that are actually useful in the search for college scholarships. Fastweb, is the first stop for online scholarships and a household name with families who've been through the college process in the past 10 years. The site has 50 million registered users, of whom 9 million are active users of the site. Fastweb has 1.5 million scholarships worth about $3.5 billion.
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Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Fastweb.com and an expert in financial aid, tells Mashable less than 0.3 percent of students enrolled in four-year institutions were able to get a free ride due to grants and scholarships. Most scholarships help with the burden of college costs, but don't eliminate it.
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"Your chances of winning a scholarship if you're going to a four-year institution are about 1 in 8," he said, adding the amount for that one winner averages about $2,800 per year. Yet, it's important to lessen your college debt since it will most likely stay with you for years after graduation.
"Every dollar you borrow, it'll cost you about $2 by the time you pay back the debt," he added.
For those who already have student loan debt, there's CollegeNET.com. The money you win can be put toward college tuition or student loan debt.
On CollegeNET.com, users create topics in forums, then other users write responses or make videos about such topics. A variety of topics are discussed every week, from breastfeeding to sex to laundry. Users then vote to determine who will win scholarship money each week by who created the most interesting forum. The amount of scholarship money awarded, and number of winners, varies each week and depends on how many users are competing.
"We basically turn advertising dollars into scholarship dollars," founder Jim Wolfston tells Mashable. "Basically what happens is the more activity on the site, the bigger the scholarship gets."
The site has 80,000 registered users and gets more than 40,000 unique visitors each month. A $300 "Rookie scholarship" is also awarded each week to a new user and on top of that, there are 10 or more individual winners each week. CollegeNET.com started a new feature where each week's winner will compete for a $20,000 scholarship every 10 weeks. The next drawing will be on Oct. 24.
Wolfston founded CollegeNET.com in 2007. To date, the site's top winner has received $19,000 and was able to fully pay for his college education.
In this type of setting, he said, students can be creative, learn to express themselves and also receive feedback from peers -- which is great practice for those who have yet to write a college essay.
On CollegeScholarships.com, users complete a profile and search for matching scholarships. The site also has helpful information for students, like "Tips for Choosing a College Major" and "How to win a Scholarship."
College Board's Scholarship Search page lets you search from $6 billion in scholarship funding. Fill out a four-page form with your basic information, plus where you are at in your studies (returning adult students can search too) and a few other details, and you get back a lengthy page of possible scholarships and research grants.
Sites Zinch and Cappex sprouted from former Fastweb employees. Zinch's bank of scholarships goes up to only about $1 million, but it's worth a look in case your search results uncover a scholarship you didn't know about. Cappex partnered with education content provider Peterson's, so its scholarship search looks a lot more like what you're probably familiar with on other big sites -- enter your name, ancestry, special clubs, disabilities, etc.
So why aren't there more web tools for scholarships?
"It's very expensive to compile a scholarship database," Kantrowitz said. Fastweb.com is updated on a daily basis by its six employees. Other tools out there are licensed by sites so you see a lot of duplication, Kantrowitz said.
In 2010-2011, tuition plus room-and-board for a full-time undergraduate student at a four year university (including both public and private institutions) averaged $22,000, according to National Center for Education Statistics. And while college doesn't seem to be getting much cheaper, it's still well worth it over the course of a lifetime.
Kantrowitz is also the author of the book, "Secrets to Winning a Scholarship," and gives some scholarship tips to Mashable readers:
- Start searching for scholarships as soon as possible, so you don't miss any deadlines.
- Apply to every scholarship you can. Sometimes scholarships are awarded on luck or a drawing, so the more scholarships you apply for, the more likely you are to win one.
- Answer optional questions, in addition to the mandatory ones, on scholarship search forms. You'll find way more matching scholarships.
Have you had luck finding scholarships online? What site did you use? Tell us in the comments.
This story originally published on Mashable here.