These students are leaving free money on the table. In addition, three-fifths of students who borrow private student loans instead of less expensive federal student loans do so because they do not submit the FAFSA.
The failure to apply for federal student aid affects retention and graduation rates, especially among low-income students. Accordingly, a key current focus is on further simplification of the FAFSA to make it easier for students to apply.
The internet also can make scholarship applications more efficient. FinAid and FastWeb merged in 1999, and I quit my job as a research scientist at a Japanese software laboratory in 2000 to focus full-time on the web sites. One of my first projects involved implementing “eScholarships” using a variety of techniques such as Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology, automated form structure extraction, and manually created custom forms.
Unfortunately, this technology was ahead of its time, as scholarship providers were not yet comfortable with electronic scholarship applications. They insisted on being able to print out the application data on their original application forms. Scanning in the forms, correcting OCR errors, and recreating the look and feel of a paper form proved to be too labor-intensive to be practical for more than a few dozen scholarship programs.
We waited five years before revisiting the technology. Since 2007, FastWeb has worked with the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation under the auspices of the National Scholarship Providers Association to produce an XML scholarship data standard. This allows students to apply electronically for scholarships by reusing their scholarship search profile data, as well as data and essays from other scholarship applications. This makes applying for a scholarship as easy as clicking on an “Apply Now” button on the scholarship description page on the FastWeb site.
The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation has developed a toolkit called ScholarSnapp to help scholarship providers adopt the standard.
The internet has played a pivotal role in making it easier for students to learn about financial aid and apply for private scholarships and government grants—and that, in turn, has made college more affordable for more people.
Mark Kantrowitz is a nationally-recognized expert on student financial aid, student loans, scholarships, and paying for college. He is the publisher of FinAid.org, the most popular free web site for clear and unbiased student aid information, advice, and tools, and FastWeb.com, the largest and most frequently updated free scholarship matching web site.