Image: College graduates © Ariel Skelley,Blend Images,Getty Images

Related topics: college, scholarships, college tuition, financial aid, education

For two Colorado students, duct tape helped seal dreams of a college education.

As part of a scholarship competition, Izzy Bristow and John Dyer used nearly 40 rolls of the tacky stuff to create off-the-wall fashions: prom suits and gowns in royal blue. The shiny adhesive outfits -- hers with a detachable peacock-patterned collar -- took 90 hours to construct and netted them $3,000 each as winners of the Stuck at Prom Scholarship Contest sponsored by marketers of the Duck brand tape.

"I was shocked," says Bristow, who is now studying costume design at Western Oregon University. "But it was pretty cool to know that I could do something other than write an essay to get a scholarship."

While a few thousand bucks may barely put a dent in annual college tuition costs these days, plenty of strapped students are chasing down obscure microgrants -- scholarships with requirements that are nonacademic and sometimes downright bizarre.

Intrepid types can find awards for vegetarians, nudists or so-so students with creative abilities. Some grants require a special knack for sewing or playing the bagpipes; others can be secured only by fate, such as having a particular last name or a towering physique.

How's the weather up there?

The Tall Clubs International gives grants of $1,000 to men who stand at least 6 feet 2 inches or women 5 feet 10 and over.

Applicants need to have good grades, write an essay about "What Being Tall Means" and offer proof of their height. To satisfy the main requirement, most applicants submit to a measuring session at one of the club's local chapters.

The food industry serves up a smorgasbord of offerings. The National Potato Council provides a $5,000 award to a graduate student pursuing curricula in agribusiness that "enhance the potato industry," according to contest rules.

The Scholar Athlete Milk Mustache of the Year (SAMMY) hands 25 students scholarships in the amount of $7,500 each, plus a trip to Disney World and the chance to star in a "Got Milk?" mustache ad.

Thousands of American individuals, associations, foundations and corporations pony up more than $3 billion in private scholarships each year, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FastWeb, an online scholarship guide.

These include prestigious awards such as National Merit scholarships and other traditional prizes.

More offbeat aid tracked by Kantrowitz starts out at about $250 and can reach tens of thousands of dollars.

"These scholarships won't determine whether someone attends a school, but it alleviates some of the financial strain," says Tony Pals, a spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

"Thinking that you're going to win a free ride is unrealistic," adds Kantrowitz. "But students who excel at something usually have success."

Financial aid for being a vegan

Claire Askew of Lenexa, Kan., had fallen in love with Lewis & Clark College during a family trip to Portland, Ore. But even with generous financial aid from the school, she figured "there was no way" she could afford the annual tuition and fees of about $45,000.

Each night she prowled the Internet for college cash.

After sending off several applications and essays, she scored $4,000 from the Potawatomi Indian tribe, of which she is a member. She also managed to impress the Vegetarian Resource Group, a nonprofit educational organization that awarded her $5,000 for a book she had written in high school about being a teenage vegan.

Having a green palate wasn't enough, stresses Jeannie McStay, outreach coordinator for the group, which provides two scholarships a year. The funds, she says, come from an anonymous donor who wants to reward applicants who have promoted vegetarianism at school or in their community.

Unusual skills and talents can put matriculants over the top. Andrew Bova of Perrysburg, Ohio, began playing bagpipes when he was 12. With only a few U.S. schools offering a degree program in bagpipe performance, he was keen to attend Carnegie Mellon University. He caught his breath after landing a place in the music program, as well as the school's Lewis W. Davidson Bagpipe Memorial Scholarship, worth $7,000 a year.

The money will reduce his debt load, says Bova, who is mindful of his future income prospects. "I'll be happy as a bagpiper, but God knows I'll never be driving a Porsche," he says.

What's in a name? Money

At some schools, there's plenty in a name. Loyola University Chicago offers tuition scholarships to Catholic students with the last name of Zolp. No cheating -- the school requires a birth certificate and a baptismal or confirmation certificate. The scholarship was a bequest from Father William Zolp, who took classes at the campus but didn't pursue a degree. For the 2009 academic year, the school doled out $25,000 to two Zolps.

"I had heard about all sorts of wacky scholarships, but this topped the list," says Lindsey Zolp, who is a Zolp fund beneficiary. As a kid, she recalls how her last name automatically put her at the back of most lines. "I hated being a 'Z,'" she says. "But I guess it paid off."

North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., has had a disproportionate number of students named Gatlin or Gatling. That's because John Gatling, a successful businessman, bequeathed to his alma mater funds for such scholarships, which ramped up in 1979. Those born with either spelling are eligible for the grants, which typically average about $14,000 a year.

Conas Gatlin, who has two college-age sons, learned about the program while chatting with a relative at a family reunion. "I thought, 'Surely he isn't serious,'" recalls Gatlin.

After checking online and with the college, she discovered it was indeed for real. Her sons, Jonathan and Joshua, applied to the school and were granted both admission and Gatlin gifts. As a result, the Houston-area family was able to avoid taking out loans.

When Gatlin tells others about her family's good fortune, she says some people ask, "Can you adopt my child?"

This article was reported by Jilian Mincer for The Wall Street Journal.