College Costs and Scholarship Scams

November 4, 2003

by Howard and Matthew Greene

Most families considering a college education in the immediate future are fully aware of the soaring costs of tuition at both public and private universities. They are as worried about how they will be able to pay this heavy toll as they are about gaining admission into a worthy institution. Public institutions have increased their tuition by an average of 14% and private institutions by an average of 6% this year. For the 2003-2004 academic year the average cost of a public four-year university (includes tuition, fees, room and board) is $13,800. and for a private four-year college it is $29,540. You can expect this trend to continue for the foreseeable future.

Let it not go unnoticed that our capitalistic system abhors any vacuum that can be filled by entrepreneurs, as witnessed by the rapid growth of enterprising companies that claim to wash away all the financial worries parents and students have. As tuitions have increased annually at rates well above the Cost of Living Index, financial-assistance companies have grown commensurately. The pitch is virtually the same from all these for-profit organizations: there are billions of dollars available in grants that you can easily qualify for with our professional assistance and special expertise. For fees that can run as high as several thousand dollars these companies promise or guarantee that they will help a student land a generous scholarship. Any high school student may find in her mailbox aggressive marketing pieces promising to find scholarships particularly suited to her individual interests and financial needs from one or more of these companies, for a reasonable price, of course. Families are required to sign a contract that makes them liable for the full search fee, usually upfront.

The real story is that these organizations promise significantly more than they can deliver, and that any and all information or leads they might provide are available for free to every student and parent. Several internet sources provide comprehensive and free information that enables a student to launch an individualized search for appropriate financial aid funding. These Web sites include: www.studentaid.ed.gov, www.FastWeb.com, www.Finaid.org, www.collegeboard.com, and Peterson's Scholarship Search (www.petersons.com).

The efforts to exploit a collegebound family's concerns about paying for college have become so rampant and irresponsible that the U.S. Congress enacted a law in 2000, the Scholarship Fraud Prevention Act, that authorizes the Federal Trade Commission to create a program called Project Scam. The Commission is aggressively seeking out a number of these irresponsible financial assistance companies. They have brought lawsuits against a number of companies that have defrauded hundreds of thousands of clients in recent years. Use the resources available to you on one or more of the reliable Web sites and ask your guidance counselor for copies of the financial aid information on file from the federal and state government, private organizations, and individual colleges and universities. Be certain to attend your high school's informational meetings on financial aid as well.

Our advice is simple: follow the rule that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! And do not despair of being able to afford a college education, for as you read this article know that there is $105 billion in financial aid available from government and institutional sources.