Computers: an imperfect search for college money

January 06, 1991|By JoAnne C. Broadwater

There's good news for college-bound high school students who are searching for ways to pay for their education: According to one financial aid expert, there are probably more than a million scholarships available from over 200,000 sources across the country.

Unfortunately, it may not be so easy to find them. There is no central listing where all are recorded; in fact, many scholarships are never even advertised. Information may be passed along by word of mouth or perhaps in a flier mailed to a high school `D guidance counselor.

Others may be included in one of the many journals and books that list scholarships, such as those published by Octameron Associates. (A catalog of the firm's books which deal with financial aid and college may be obtained by sending a self-addressed, stamped envelope to: Octameron Associates, P.O. Box 2748, Alexandria, Va. 22301).

It all adds up to a lot of detective work for students and parents -- poring over books, contacting organizations and businesses about scholarships, consulting with high school guidance counselors and college financial aid officers. Then they must decide which scholarships they are most qualified for, and apply for those.

But now there's a new tool available which can help to ease the workload just a bit -- the computerized financial aid search. Private companies and franchises have sprung up across the country marketing data bases that match individual students with scholarships. And while the high cost and questionable practices of some have aroused the ire of financial aid professionals, others have built solid reputations based on accurate data bases and reasonable prices.

National College Services Ltd. is a Gaithersburg firm that has gained widespread recognition for a computerized financial aid resource system called CASHE. The system is popular across Maryland and available in a number of public school systems and colleges.

"It's a quicker, more systematic way to search for a lot of funding," said Carol Daigle, director of marketing and publication for the company.

All students have to do is answer a list of 35 questions about everything from work experience to intended major, to memberships and affiliations they and their parents hold in organizations. That information is fed into a computer, which produces a list of potential financial aid sources for the student to contact for applications.

"It helps the student to be more complete in his endeavor to find funding," Ms. Daigle said. "It's certainly a very good resource tool."

An individual computer search costs $30 if purchased directly from the company; however, for students in public school systems that subscribe to the service, it's available free. Also, the University of Maryland at College Park will run the search for anyone for $10, while prospective students at the school pay only $5.

The CASHE service includes close to 200,000 financial aid listings offered by about 15,000 sponsoring agencies, Ms. Daigle said. Newly gathered information is added daily and existing information is confirmed once each year.

"We take pride in striving for an up-to-date, validated data base," she said. "But it's not going to be perfect. Two months after we update information, phone numbers get changed. And we never say we have them all. We don't put in the tiny ones under $500. Students should still check with their local churches and so on. Still, it's better than going to the library and reading all those books."

Bruce Seward, the guidance chairman at Perry Hall High School, said his students are excited about the opportunity to use the computerized scholarship search which is now offered free in all Baltimore County public high schools.

George Lauer, guidance department chairman at Damascus High School in Montgomery County -- where the service is also offered at no charge -- added: "It has made a lot more information available to kids and parents. There's so much, in fact, that a student could be overwhelmed by it. But we encourage our kids to go for it all -- if they're in the ballpark."

Carol Muscara, who works in the Division of Computer-Related Instruction in the Montgomery county schools, said computer searches "give students a quick and easy way to find some available financial resources based on their own criteria."

However, she said, "No matter how good a service is, there's probably no way that it can include all of the available aid. But parents and students might tend to think that it provides them with all of the scholarships that are available."

Computer searches have drawn criticism for giving students inaccurate scholarship data and incomplete listings. Some financial aid professionals consider the searches to be of dubious value and recommend that students not pay more than nominal fees to obtain them. While smart shoppers can find the service for just a few dollars and in some cases for free, students may be asked to pay as much as $100.

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