Ethical College Admissions: Scholarships or Product Placement?

Free money for college? Beware of the offers, writes Jim Jump.

June 11, 2018

Back in graduate school I took a seminar on skepticism. We met for three hours on Wednesday afternoons in a room without windows discussing questions like “How do we know that the chairs we are sitting in really exist?” I lived in fear that someone would overhear our discussions and lock us in the room.

The course must have impacted me, because those who know me think the list of things I’m skeptical about is pretty long. At this time of year, claims by schools and school districts trumpeting the total scholarship dollars won by graduating seniors are at the top of the list.

I’ve tried to avoid getting pulled into playing that game, because I know how difficult it is to collect that information and how squishy those dollar amounts are. Does the figure include scholarships accepted or scholarships offered? Does it reflect only “merit” scholarships (which are all too often tuition discounts) or need-based financial aid as well? If athletic scholarships are included, what counts as an “offer”? Is the figure reported for one year or projected for four?

Even if the figure is accurate, how meaningful is it? And at what point do scholarship dollars cease to be a metric and start to become the goal? Last year a school district near Memphis got carried away with its “Million Dollar Scholar” program to the point that good students were pulled out of class and encouraged or coerced to apply to as many as 100 colleges in order to “win” a million dollars in scholarships.

A decade ago when my daughter went through the college admissions process, I decided to educate myself about the world of non-need scholarships. I knew that the claim that there are millions of dollars in unclaimed scholarship dollars annually is a suburban legend, and that the vast majority of scholarship dollars are administered by colleges and universities, but I wanted to learn as much as possible about what was and wasn’t true.

I spent a lot of time on Fastweb that year, and the vast majority of outside scholarships I found were for small amounts, maybe $500 each, and required writing essays. The question, then, is whether it’s worth the time it takes to apply. The answer is the same as for every question about college admission: “It depends.”

It depends on what you are giving up to spend time writing scholarship essays, and it depends on your level of financial need. If you qualify for need-based financial aid, it might not be worth the time, because whatever outside scholarships you win will probably reduce the institutional grant aid you receive.

Unless you stumble across a scholarship reserved for someone with your last name that hasn’t been claimed for 30 years, there aren’t that many big-money scholarships out there. The few I found all seemed to be won by high school students who in their spare time had collected $1 million worth of old cellphones in order to buy body armor for the troops in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Not everyone was appreciative of the results of my scholarship research. My wife was disbelieving and angry when I told her that, as outstanding as our daughter might be, she was likely to get admitted to the schools on her list but unlikely to receive any merit scholarships. She was even angrier when I turned out to be right.

Now there is a new addition to the landscape of non-need scholarships and the list of things I’m skeptical of.

On Friday an Associated Press article reported that the e-cigarette industry has turned to college scholarships as a marketing technique. The scholarships range from $250 to $5,000, and most are attached to essay contests asking students to write about the dangers of tobacco, why vaping is a safer alternative to smoking, or the relative merits of different brands and flavors of e-cigarette.

The scholarships come at a time when the rise of vaping among high school and even middle school students threatens to turn around the steady decrease in tobacco use among teenagers. Last Thursday the Center for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (something I’ll be sure to add to my light reading) reported that tobacco use among teenagers dropped between 2011 and 2017 from 25 percent to just under 20 percent, but that e-cigarette use is now the leading way in which young people access tobacco.

That confirms what I suspected after driving through the small towns of southeastern Virginia and North Carolina on my way to the beach over the past couple of years. What used to be cigarette stores in almost every strip mall are now rebranded as vape shops.

So what’s the rationale for the scholarships? Are they a cynical attempt to attract new young customers? Is the e-cigarette industry committed to, in the lyrics from 1960s satirist Tom Lehrer’s song “The Old Dope Peddler,” “doing well by doing good”?

The AP story suggests that the scholarships may have been devised as a strategy to improve search engine results. In the early days of the internet, many websites tried to link to government or university websites as a way to increase traffic, but Google has updated its algorithm to penalize sites that try to manipulate search rankings. The AP reported that vaping-related scholarships have shown up on financial-aid pages at universities including Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, seemingly lending legitimacy to and even endorsement of vaping.

The e-cigarette industry is hardly the first business to try to use college scholarships as a way to increase visibility and market to young consumers. I have seen businesses ranging from credit card companies to mattress manufacturers sponsor scholarships, and I am hesitant to recommend them to my students.

What I see more commonly than the scholarship as a means to increase web traffic is the scholarship offered as a way to collect data about potential customers in the 18 to 25 demographic. Offering a $1,000 scholarship is a small investment if it brings in contact information for 5,000 potential customers. Even if my company doesn’t market to those customers, I can sell the list to other firms for a hefty profit.

The interesting question raised by the AP article is whether any of the advertised scholarships are actually being awarded. The Associated Press didn’t find any websites with scholarship winners named, and the 15 companies sponsoring scholarships or essay contests, when contacted, refused to disclose names of scholarship recipients, with only one agreeing to an interview. That site then removed the scholarships without explanation or comment.

There are a lot of questions still to be answered about e-cigarettes and vaping. Are they truly safer than smoking? What are the long-term health risks? Will flavored vaping products attract a new generation to tobacco use, and will the Food and Drug Administration end up imposing new regulations?

The “vaping scholarships” generate even more questions. The healthiest response is a healthy skepticism.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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