Web site gives ‘free’ scholarships

A web site that made its debut Feb. 3 is offering students tens of thousands of dollars in scholarship money. All it wants in return is to get to know them better.

FreeScholarships.com promises to give away $10,000 every day for college, graduate school, or even private and parochial school.

Scholarships from the new Cambridge, Mass.-based company are financed largely by marketers and advertisers aiming products at teen-agers and 20-somethings.

Site visitors must register to be eligible. Playing games, answering surveys and polls, referring friends, and clicking on ads earns more chances.

Winners, chosen by a computer-generated random drawing, can win more than once. The odds of hitting the jackpot depend on how many fellow travelers log on.

The incentives for coughing up demographic information are great. FreeScholarships plans to award another $25,000 every month and $50,000 each quarter to pay tuition, in addition to the $10,000 winner seven days a week.

“It’s a low-energy path for people to get a shot at helping them pay for school,” said Chuck Digate, the company’s founder.

It’s also the latest of a host of web sites handing out millions to web surfers in exchange for a valuable storefront on the crowded internet superhighway.

Others have offered one-time scholarship sweepstakes—Embark.com, for example, just wrapped up a promotion with a grand prize of four years’ tuition, or up to $80,000.

Free money on the internet is a booming business.

The portal site iWon.com, which offers cash jackpots to web surfers, is ranked among the 50 most popular sites of the 21,000 followed by the internet survey firm MediaMetrix. The site gives away a $10,000 prize every day, $1 million each month, and promises to award someone $10 million on April 17, the day taxes are due.

The reality, of course, is that most site visitors never win the big bucks, so FreeScholarships also provides financial aid tips, with links to national scholarship programs.

The new site sounds well-intentioned enough, said Mark Cannon, deputy executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which represents guidance counselors and admissions officers.

Even so, he said, “You don’t need to be a sweepstakes winner to afford college.”

Still, half of all U.S. college graduates emerge from school in debt—$12,000 on average at public institutions, $14,000 at private institutions. The typical yearly bill at a four-year private school, including room and board, averages $23,651, while state schools hover just under $11,000.

To ensure the money goes to school and not a new car or vacation, FreeScholarships will send a winner’s check directly to the college, bank, or other lending program, Digate said.

College grads with loans to pay off also are eligible, as are parents planning for future college bills. Winners need only be U.S. citizens over age 13.

Timothy McDonough, spokesman for the American Council on Education, a Washington-based higher education trade group, said the buyer should beware.

“You’re always concerned about the possibility of some kind of scam activity,” said McDonough. He said the web site’s financial information might not be the most reliable.

The education council’s web site is designed to show that college isn’t as expensive as many fear. According to the site, more than two-thirds of full-time undergraduates receive financial aid, averaging $6,800.

Dallas Martin, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said anything that helps students confront college costs should be commended.

“So what if there’s a commercial side to it?” he asked.

Students don’t seem to mind being pitched to, if the site’s traffic is any indication. According to Digate, “massive demand” overwhelmed the site’s servers shortly after its launch.

Thousands of people were able to register for the jackpot on the first day, but “what we don’t know is, how many people tried to and couldn’t,” Digate said.

FreeScholarships web site

National Association for College Admission Counseling

American Council on Education

National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators

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