Steven Levy: Getting Scholarships on FastWeb

Two thoughts occur to just about any parent whose child is about to enter college. The first is "I can't believe how quickly the years have gone by." The second: "I can't believe how much it costs." As one of those parents, I did my best to get past the disturbing first thought and tried to calm my churning stomach while dealing with the second. That's when a fellow fretter pointed me to FastWeb, the most popular Internet scholarship site, self-described as "the best way to get free money for school." A few sessions with FastWeb, and a hard look at some of the scholarships it offers, and I had another reason to hate the college-financing process.

My first problem was the volume of the personal information requested to get going—from the student's prospective major to grade-point average and ethnic heritage. Steve Boyce, director of marketing for FastWeb (which started as an independent company but was acquired by the job-placement site in 2001), explains that it's necessary to link relevant scholarships to applicants. If customers agree to release that information, FastWeb will share user data with third parties. According to the FastWeb privacy policy, recipients can include "data aggregators" and marketers compiling lists. "In the old days, you used to go into the library and flip a book to find out about scholarships," says Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Now you don't find out about the scholarship until they find out about you."

Nor was I charmed that, before seeing the scholarships, the site required me to click "no thanks" to offers from survey companies, online universities and U.S. Navy recruiters. Boyce says that FastWeb tries to get a proper balance between users and advertisers who fund the business, but the pushiness of the ads gave me the impression that FastWeb knows that its users won't bail because they're desperate for college funds.

Once you get to the scholarships FastWeb finds for you, though, how many are really worth pursuing? Put aside for a moment the esoteric nature of some of the grants, like the $1,500 scholarship for duck-calling. The instant access the Internet provides about awards, as well as the desire of sites like FastWeb to list thousands of opportunities, has led to an abundance of what are called promotional scholarships. These are an inexpensive way for a company to woo customers under the guise of kindness to a worthy young person. Since FastWeb doesn't rate the quality of its scholarships, these are cheek-to-cheek with more-traditional, less-exploitative grants. (Boyce says that the site is working on a system to identify and explain these promotional scholarships.)

A case in point is the Coca-Cola College Bound Contest, brought to you by the Chuck E. Cheese pizza operation. The winner gets $25,000 toward a college fund. To qualify, one was asked to register for the "Chuck E-Club," thus opening one's IN BOX to a stream of offers from the company. (Tucked in the bottom of the Web page was a link that allowed one to enter the contest without joining the club.) According to Chuck E. Cheese spokesperson Brenda Holloway, more than 1.6 million contestants signed up for the contest, which ended last week. She doesn't specify how many of those joined the club (typically in contests, the majority of entrants take the suggested path), but did say that the club's population rose. That's hundreds of thousands of new Chuck E. members, at a cost of to the company of a few pennies each. And only one got a scholarship.

Many of the FastWeb offers ask entrants to write essays—in the aggregate, students spend millions of hours creating themes that will pay off to only a very few. Sometimes the assignments appear to be a form of indoctrination, like the ones offered by the Ayn Rand Institute to expound on issues in "The Fountainhead" or "Atlas Shrugged." Then there is the $250 prize given to the best essay based on the themes of the book "High School's Not Forever"—a gift offered by the book's authors.

One of the more ubiquitous scholarship sponsors on FastWeb is a company called Brickfish, which often asks students to compete for small grants ($500 or less) by making a video or blog post involving a consumer product that pays Brickfish to run a marketing campaign. "Scholarshiping sends a positive message, one of good will," says Brickfish CEO Brian Dunn. And though college costs are high, modest prizes are sufficient to get the reaction Brickfish wants. "Oddly enough, people react better to smaller amounts—they think they're more likely to win," Dunn says.

Donald Heller, director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University, says that applying for scholarships found on FastWeb and similar sites isn't worth the effort for most families. "The real action is in the dollars given by the institutions themselves," he says. (FastWeb's Boyce says he doesn't have statistics to prove it, but "anecdotally, we are helping students meet their goals.") As for my own family's strategy, I've filled out the usual government forms and ones offered by the college my son will attend; I will also keep an eye out for local programs that don't involve competing with FastWeb's 38 million registered users. And when the jackpot gets high, I play Mega Millions. At least with the lottery, you don't have to write an essay.