The Crunch: Since 1998, aspiring college students have logged onto Scholarships.com for free access to a carefully maintained database of more than 3.7 million scholarship opportunities. The site acts as a portal for researching colleges and universities as well as a directory for browsing thousands of scholarship opportunities in dozens of categories — giving students options for higher education they may not have otherwise known they had. And as a source of news and information on planning and preparing for college, it acts as a support service for students from all walks of life. COO Kevin Ladd’s personal commitment to student advocacy and volunteerism has made mentorship and helping students turn their aspirations into fulfilling lives and careers central to the site.
Kevin Ladd, Co-Creator and COO of Scholarships.com, helps aspiring students and their families find money to pay for college. But Scholarships.com is more than a business for Kevin — it’s a manifestation of his personal commitment to seeing students succeed.
That commitment grew out of Kevin’s own challenges as he was getting his start in life. “My parents told me that I was going to go to college, but they didn’t tell me how I was going to go to college,” he said. “Because we didn’t have enough money to pay for it. It was just something I had to figure out.”
A native of Waterville, Maine, Kevin found a way to attend a state university as a studio arts major by working in restaurants and construction before getting into web development. Kevin learned how to pay for college, but, after it was over, his passion turned to helping others find an easier path.
Scholarships.com was founded in 1998 by Larry Gerber, and co-created by Larry, Kevin, and Scholarships.com CTO Dan Walowski. The goal was to help college-bound students identify the best scholarship offers without having to wade through hundreds of thousands of search results.
“We started as a matching service for people who were looking for scholarships based on a fairly simple algorithm,” Kevin said. “We were basically like one of those online dating sites, but for scholarships.” The team built and maintained an ever-growing database of scholarship offers that users would search by submitting personal data to trigger matches. The value for students was in saving time by eliminating the offers they didn’t qualify for and finding opportunities they otherwise would not have known existed.
“We’ve been working on the database since the beginning, and we expanded that into searchable information about the colleges themselves,” Kevin said.
The site generates millions of pageviews per month, saving countless hours of research for parents and students. The listed scholarships and grants have a combined value of more than $19 billion, money just waiting to help deserving applicants.
“We’re a trusted source of news and information about colleges and the college experience,” Kevin said.
Easy-to-Use Tools for Turning Aspirations into Reality
First-time visitors to Scholarships.com are invited to start a free search by creating an account on the site. After they enter information about intended majors, extracurricular activities and interests, grades, and standardized test scores, the site generates a list of scholarship offers, sorted by scholarship name, amount, and application deadline. Users of the site may also suppress those they don’t like and highlight the ones they do.
“One of the ways we build trust with our students and families is we don’t include any offers that carry application fees,” Kevin said. “And we know none of them are scams because we personally vet them — we have a staff that looks at each one. So it’s a safe environment in which to search for financial aid that you know is a legitimate opportunity.”
“There’s a lot of support out there for students who are good prospects and hard workers. Never hesitate to ask for help. That’s good advice overall, but it’s definitely good advice when it comes to scholarships and colleges.” — Kevin Ladd, Co-Creator and COO of Scholarships.com
Users can eliminate offers they don’t qualify for, while fine-tuning their search criteria as they go along. The site also maintains a directory of thousands of its most popular offers.
“If you’re looking for gender-specific scholarships, or scholarships for a particular race or culture, or just for nontraditional students, you can choose to search our directory for these and a number of other categories,” Kevin said.
Students also may not be aware of how many institutions out there offer scholarship money and are waiting for eligible applications. So the site offers a search service that looks for investigating colleges and universities according to state, college type, academic major, cost, and many other criteria.
“Spend the time and be strategic about it, be intelligent about it,” Kevin said. “There’s a lot of support out there for students who are good prospects and hard workers. Never hesitate to ask for help. That’s good advice overall, but it’s definitely good advice when it comes to scholarships and colleges.”
Kevin Ladd: The Mentor at the Heart of Scholarships.com
One aspect of a comprehensive scholarship-search strategy, Kevin advised, is to use the process to graduate debt-free, or as close to debt-free as possible. “Most US schools are more than capable of providing a great undergraduate education,” he said, “or they wouldn’t be accredited.”
“So I definitely recommend keeping an open mind about schools and not being so concerned about attending a top-tier institution like Harvard or Yale or MIT if you don’t qualify for big institutional scholarships at one these schools,” he said. “It’s probably never bad advice, in my opinion, to find a less expensive way to start your college career and try to save some funds in case you decide to go to grad school.
He also advises students to think about attending community college for two years first because it can come at a fraction of the cost and the credits will transfer to a university.
“It’ll probably only cost you a couple of thousand dollars a year versus, you know, tens of thousands of dollars,” Kevin said. “Of course, you need to also consider whether you will qualify for institutional aid as a transfer student as opposed to beginning as a freshman at a four-year undergraduate school. All of these things are on the table and should be researched.”
That’s the type of advice that Kevin has given many students in his role as a volunteer mentor with the Chicago Scholars Foundation. The organization works with academically ambitious students from under-resourced communities to help them complete college and become the next generation of leaders.
“A big part of the reason I’ve felt compelled to serve on scholarship boards,” Kevin said, “is because I don’t have children, and so maybe I can help some kid whose parents can’t, or who doesn’t have both parents around anymore.”
It’s been a rewarding experience — a passion project that connects to and extends what he does for a living, Kevin said.
“Whatever you end up pursuing in life, you gain a certain amount of experience and knowledge, and I think it’s our obligation to share that and help people if we can,” he said. “I find it very fulfilling, and I’ve met a lot of great people — not just the kids but co-mentors, administrative staff — all kinds of people.”
A Free Portal to Educational Opportunity for Students
Scholarships.com is so much more than a business interest for Kevin; it is an investment in the future. As a mentor, he tells the kids he works with to “get after it.” Mentorship is about turning young people who are receptive to advocacy from others into advocates for themselves — and then into leaders.
“That’s one thing I always try to teach the kids I work with,” he said.“I remember one scholar who was polite, had a great smile, and all the stuff you’d want in a teenager in terms of body language and approachability. But he was very shy, so we went over eye contact and a firm handshake, and we went and talked in a group for 20 minutes. He did great and began to build confidence in himself. That’s a huge factor; self-confidence. Not just in school or college applications or scholarships but throughout life.”
And that is an important message that Scholarships.com helps get across: Be an advocate for yourself and don’t be afraid to find your voice.
“Don’t waste your time being shy. There are certain points in your life that you can’t go back and do over,” Kevin said. “So if you’re in high school, or a college freshman or sophomore, and you’re still super shy, you might miss a bunch of opportunities. You might not join organizations or groups. You might not dare to try things because you’re too shy. Dare to.”
Scholarships.com is a free tool that millions of students have used to help them focus on their opportunities, build plans, and turn them into realities. As the site continues to improve its functionality — it recently streamlined the profile creation process to make getting started easier than ever — it also continues as an expression of that core commitment to mentorship.
“Don’t waste your time by starting something you’re not going to finish,” Kevin said. “Make sure that you’re committed to it by setting aside time to sit down and actually apply for these scholarships. And follow through, because you just might get them.”