Beware of Scholarship Scams

Figuring out how to pay for college is stressful for most parents and may be out-of-reach for some families. My husband and I have three college-bound teenage daughters, and our oldest will be attending St. Lawrence University in New York this year. Tuition, books, and room and board will exceed $70,000 annually, not including countless round-trip flights between California and New York. Yikes! Those costs add up quickly, especially during the years all three of our girls will be attending college at the same time. Scholarships are a great opportunity to fill in the funding gaps, but beware of potential scams:

  • Fees and guarantees – Legitimate scholarship services do not guarantee scholarships for a fee. While some reputable companies do offer fee-based lists of available scholarships, the lists are available for free to families willing to do some research. Be willing to pay a fee only for the convenience of the service, not for a guaranteed match.
  • Official-sounding name – Using “National” or “Federal” in the name might sound legitimate, but always verify the scholarship organization is endorsed by a reputable source. The Better Business Bureau ( and the Federal Trade Commission ( track consumer scam complaints.
  • Requests for personal information – There should be no fee to apply for scholarships, so never give your credit card number or bank information on an application.
  • Awarded a scholarship you didn’t apply for – This is a red flag for scammers marketing sales pitches offering financial aid assistance.
  • Define “scholarship” – Over time, the term “scholarship” has become synonymous with any type of financial aid. Some fee-based services send lists of student loan opportunities or work-study discounts and call them “scholarships,” disappointing cash-strapped families seeking traditional scholarships.
  • Claims that a company has exclusive access – Legitimate scholarship providers offer scholarships because they want to award them. There are no secret scholarships exclusively available to fee-based services.
  • Watch out for companies offering to fill out your FAFSA – The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is long, detailed, and a dreaded chore filled with personal financial information. It takes significant time to prepare because it contains a lot of data…data that should be kept confidential. Bite the bullet and get it done yourself.

The good news is that there are many free and honest resources available. Speak to your student’s high school guidance office. Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine eligibility for all Federal programs and many non-need awards. Beware of unsolicited offers. Do your research.

Remember, applying for financial aid and scholarships is time-consuming, so plan accordingly. You know your student’s unique strengths, interests, and skills and can best match them with potential awards. Besides, going through this painstaking task with my teenage daughter is giving me one last sliver of time before she jets off to her new life in New York.

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