College aid isn't growing on trees, but you needn't pay to find it

With many students concerned over federal college loans - even though the amount of money available for this purpose is almost the same as last year - the search for additional financial aid has become fierce.

At the same time, the costs of college continue to go up every year. Some of the more prestigious private colleges are charging more than $12,000 for a year's tuition, room, and board. At some state schools, these costs can run $5, 000 or more.

This is where the scholarship-finding services supposedly come in. For fees ranging from $25 to $250, plus, in some cases, a percentage of the first year's scholarship, these services promise to help prospective students and their parents find many of the ''hidden'' scholarships.

For many, however, this help is probably unnecessary. Many of the scholarships that go unused are designed for specific groups of people, like left-handed redheads, people with a certain last name, or members of a particular ethnic group.

Beyond a research firm, there are several places a student can go to find out about scholarships. Some are free, others cost only a few dollars. Two free places are a high school guidance office and the financial aid office of the college you plan to attend. Another is a fairly well-stocked local library. All of these places should have scholarship guidebooks that list scholarship amounts , special criteria for qualifying, and where to write for a scholarship application.

For a dollar, the American Legion will send a booklet called ''Need a Lift?'' It is a comprehensive list of all scholarship aid, again, with addresses and criteria for eligibility. The booklet can also be obtained through local American Legion posts.

In many cases, notes Donald Chenelle, director of undergraduate admission and university financial aid at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, the scholarship research firms will send a student a list of various funding sources. But he adds that the list will often contain such generally known sources as National Direct Student Loans, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, College Work Study, Guaranteed Loans, and various state grants and loans. Thus the student has paid the search company for a list of perhaps 10 funding sources, six or seven of which are readily available.

Sometimes, Mr. Chenelle says, scholarship research firms have listed financial aid sources that were no longer available, either because the money was cut off or the firm offering the scholarship had gone out of business.

The appeal of these firms, then, seems to be greatest for people who want or need someone else to do their homework for them. Mr. Chenelle recommends that if you fit in this category, you call the colleges you are thinking of attending. Ask someone in the financial aid office if he has heard of a particular search firm and what kind of results students have gotten from it. But, again, that call may result in the student's learning about previously unknown scholarships or other financial aid sources, which would make the scholarship-finding firm unnecessary.

If you would like a question considered for publication in this column, please send it to Moneywise, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, Mass. 02115. No personal replies can be given by mail or phone. References to investments are not an endorsement or recommendation by this newspaper.

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