"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.