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FOR EVERY ZANY NICHE, THERE'S A SCHOLARSHIP AID AWAITS SHORT FOLKS, DRUG CRIMINALS, SKATEBOARDERS

Parents might be surprised at what will win a student a college scholarship these days.

In addition to the traditional awards for good grades or writing an outstanding essay, businesses and organizations are offering money for some quirky characteristics.

There are scholarships for skateboarders, students with drug convictions and even being in debt. If your last name is Zolp and you're Catholic and want to go to Loyola University in Chicago, you're set for four years. There are scholarships for tall girls and short students. One company will give $5,000 to a couple who makes the best prom attire entirely from duct tape.

Don't laugh. Michael Miranda and Ashley Lukas from Lancaster High School entered along with 323 other couples in June but were beat by a duo from Oklahoma who constructed Cinderella-like garb from colored duct tape.

While the scholarships sound wacky, the sponsors are often sincere.

The $5,000 skateboarding scholarship is in memory of Patrick Kerr, who was killed while skateboarding in 2002 by a hit-and-run tractor-trailer driver. Kerr, 15, lived in Philadelphia and had been lobbying to reopen a city park to skateboarders. The scholarship rewards students who are activists for skate parks.

The scholarship for convicted drug users stems from a change made in 1998 that denies federal aid to students with even a misdemeanor drug conviction. The award of up to $2,000 is given by Drug Reform Coordination Network Foundation.

Others are offered more for advertising than academics.

"There's definitely an opportunity to build the awareness of all the things you can do with duct tape," said Heather Sefcik of Henkel Consumer Adhesives in Avon, Ohio. The company is a manufacturer of duct tape and started the scholarship five years ago.

"It certainly helps build that awareness that duct tape does come in 19 different colors," she said.

And an Internet advertising company in Arizona, Straightforward Media, sponsors the "Get Out of Debt" scholarship as part of its marketing strategy. The company offers four $500 scholarships a year to students who owe someone money. The debt doesn't have to be education-related; the company awards the scholarships based on who is deemed most worthy. However, the strategy hasn't been a success as a means of attracting business.

"At this point, we don't have any new customers that I know about from this, but that doesn't mean we won't in the future," said CEO Joshua Barsch, who sponsors six other types of scholarships.

The best place to start searching for scholarships is in a high school guidance office or a college's financial aid center. Both places may be aware of scholarships from local organizations not advertised anywhere else.

"Another avenue a lot of parents don't think about is checking with their own employer or union or churches or anything they're involved with," said Curt Gaume, director of financial aid at Canisius College. "There's a possibility that there's something out there."

The Internet should be the next stop on any scholarship search.

Several Web sites allow students to enter personal information and then match students with scholarships for which they would qualify. Be aware that while these sites are generally free, they also generally share your personal information with various companies.

But giving up a little privacy is a price many families are willing to pay as students and parents go deeper into debt to foot college tuition bills. Government loans rose 13 percent during the last school year, but private loans grew by 43 percent to $10.6 billion, according to the College Board, the New York City-based nonprofit that administers the SATs and other tests.

And college isn't getting any cheaper.

Students going to a four-year public college will pay an average of $11,000, up nearly 8 percent from last year. At a four-year private college, the average tab is $27,500, up nearly 6 percent, according to the College Board.

"We encourage parents to get involved," said Carl Behrend, the head of Orchard Park High School's guidance office. "Parents should talk to their students about financing their eduction. That makes a huge difference if everyone knows what's expected of them."

Behrend recommends that students begin searching for scholarships as early as their sophomore year, but even once a student is in college, scholarships are still available.

Parents should help students stay organized when applying for scholarships.

"In this day and age, our kids are very busy. We ask a lot of them," Behrend said. "There's nothing wrong with giving them a little assistance. Write the deadlines on the calendar. You don't become the interferring or over-the-top parent by doing that."

There are companies that advertise that they can find scholarships not available anywhere else -- for a fee. Parents are advised to avoid these companies. All the information they need is available for free.

e-mail: lhaarlander@buffnews.com