Karissa Snow won $5,000 in scholarship money just by blogging and winning her peers’ approval. She’s among 40,000 students vying for tuition cash every week on CollegeNET, a web site that lets current and prospective college students post blog entries on a myriad of topics. The student who receives the most votes from CollegeNET members every week wins thousands for college.
"I was very drawn to it immediately," said Snow, 18, who lives in Washington and will attend the University of Hawaii and major in business this fall. "I’ve definitely made a lot of people aware of it."
CollegeNET, based in Portland, Ore., reportedly has given students more than $500,000 since the service launched in 2007. CollegeNET’s social networking appeal has drawn students from across the country looking for a little financial help, especially as lenders have restricted or frozen lines of credit during the current recession. CollegeNET officials said the site’s award process strays from the traditional scholarship model in which students are unaware of competing entries–and campus higher-ups make the final call.
Students write on topics ranging from college life to local and national politics or breaking news events. Snow joined CollegeNET in September and received the most votes of any CollegeNET member in October, thanks in large part to an entry on her reaction to the presidential debates held last fall. (The scholarship award became weekly instead of monthly as of April 1.) More than 2,000 members read her post, and 40 people commented on it.
This month’s winners include a student from the Virginia College in Birmingham, where she hopes one day to earn a degree in neonatal care. The student was able to rally enough votes to receive a $5,000 award May 6.
CollegeNET officials carefully monitor malfeasance. Students must prove they are currently enrolled in a college or university or will attend college courses within a year of winning the CollegeNET money.
The site gives between $3,000 and $5,000 to students every week. The money comes directly from CollegeNET, said company spokeswoman Patricia Summers, but advertisers’ support could increase the weekly scholarship amounts.
Summers said the hard-hit student loan sector has left many students looking elsewhere for aid, even if it’s only enough for one semester of courses.
"Since there’s been such a cutback in student loans, I definitely think this is going to be more and more popular," she said, adding that CollegeNET gets about 250,000 visitors every month. "I think as more and more students find out about it, more people will come to [CollegeNET]."
Students entering college will find their lending options have dwindled in just the past year. Thirty-six lenders have stopped offering private student loans since 2007, according to FinAid.org, a web site that tracks student lending, scholarships, and other kinds of financial aid. And with world markets in an upheaval, the line extending from the student loan industry soon could be a long one.
"I’ve never seen anything like this in 25 years in higher education, and I don’t think anyone else has either," said Excelsior College President John Ebersole, adding that an unusually high number of Excelsior students waited until tuition deadlines to pay for their fall classes. "We’re living in a very unique and unpleasant time in our history."
Snow said she was on an exhaustive online search for scholarship opportunities last year when she came across CollegeNET. She wrote more than two dozen entries and got a feel for what topics were most popular. After posting an entry, she would tell classmates to log onto the site and vote for her. Snow’s entries drew more and more comments and votes until she won the $5,000 scholarship.
"It was really just word of mouth," she said, explaining how she rallied support for her posts. "And it worked."
CollegeNET was founded in 1977 to help colleges and universities improve scheduling, tuition processing, admissions, and eMail management for students, faculty, and alumni. More than 1,300 colleges and nonprofit organizations use CollegeNET software. Summers said that in the mid-1990s, the company was one of the first to offer online application software to colleges.
Naomi Evarts, a CollegeNET spokeswoman, said the site has helped "democratize" the scholarship process by allowing students to decide who gets the weekly award and allowing anyone anywhere to give it a try.
"There are so many restrictions on [traditional] scholarships, be it GPA or ethnicity," Evarts said. "Here, you can just vote for whoever you think is the most interesting."