Scholarships Offer Wacky Ways to Pay

Tap College Savings by Checking Out Weird Grants and Awards

By BRADLEY BLACKBURN

March 4, 2009

What's in a name? Well, if your last name is Zolp and you're a student at Loyola University Chicago, your name is worth a whole lot.

Simply having the surname Zolp makes you eligible for tens of thousands of dollars in scholarship money.

In the 1970s, a Catholic priest named the Rev. William Zolp gave Loyola money for an endowed scholarship, but he gave it with some tight strings attached: His endowment provides money for any Catholic student with the last name of Zolp to attend the university, as long as the student can prove their name with birth and baptismal certificates.

Loyola's Zolp scholarship is one of a number of quirky scholarships across the country. There are scholarships for left-handed students, for surfers, for twins, for welders, for marble shooters, even for the children of Tupperware dealers. Unusual scholarships like these have led to an often repeated statistic that billions of dollars in scholarships go unclaimed every year.

"False," said Mark Kantrowitz, who's heard the rumor for years as publisher of FinAid.org and the director of Advanced Projects for FastWeb, a popular free scholarship database. "This myth of unclaimed scholarships is spread by organizations that want you to pay for something," like private scholarship counselors and paid databases that can charge thousands of dollars for their services.

Still, there are times that scholarship awards go unclaimed. From what Kantrowitz has seen, "The scholarships that go unfulfilled are the ones that can't be fulfilled."

College administrators who administer unusual scholarship awards see them as a big hassle for exactly that reason. "We like to be able to give money away," said Lorraine Branham, dean of Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications. "But sometimes restrictions by donors are so tight that we can't find students that fit the bill."

Checking the Phone Book

Edward Moore runs the Zolp scholarship as the scholarship director at Loyola University Chicago, and he says there are some years that it's a struggle to find students to take the money.

"There have been times in undergraduate admissions where if we're traveling out of state, we'll check the phone book," he said. "Are there any Zolps?" Because donors' strict requirements can keep the money from being used, universities try to persuade donors to leave the scholarship requirements up to them.

"We really can find the best students," Moore said. "We have the resources available to pull up the student's GPA [grade point average], pull up their financial need," to determine whether they deserve scholarships.

'All Kinds of Students'

"What I don't want is for a donor to say, 'I want to find someone like me,'" said Moore. "We look for the greater good out there to see that there are all kinds of students that have different kinds of needs. The best thing for a donor is to have a student say, 'Without your money, I could not be here.'"

The message from university development offices across the country is finally getting through to donors. "The new agreements that I've seen lately are much less restrictive than earlier ones."

But even if universities are successful in persuading future donors to give unrestricted funds, there will still be plenty of quirky scholarships out there. For the students who receive them, they're a welcome way to pay for school.

Cousin Contact

Lindsey Zolp, Loyola Class of 2010, found out about her unusual scholarship through her family -- a cousin benefited from the same award a few years ago. Currently, Lindsey is the only Zolp attending Loyola University Chicago as a full-time undergraduate and that means she receives a lot of money. The Zolp endowment covers about half of her $30,000 annual tuition. The junior is using the scholarship to study elementary education with a goal to work in Chicago's public schools. She's not sure why the Catholic priest created such an unusual scholarship, but she's certainly grateful for it.

"I'm not a very lucky person," she said, "so I feel very blessed that my last name is Zolp. I think it's just very random, and hey, if it's money towards college, then I'm totally for it." And though her unusual last name means she'll probably be one of the last people to walk across the stage at her graduation, she has some consolation. Being a Zolp means she'll walk away from college nearly free of debt.