Newswise — Can you pay for school 140 characters at a time? Maybe in the not-too-distant future.

For aspiring college students, the traditional scholarship essay long has been the go-to method for finding “free” money to help offset the swelling costs of an education. But social media-savvy kids are using quicker and smarter tactics to uncover cash for school.

Now, companies and institutions are offering new scholarships that will help today's college students use social media to help finance college costs.

Today's students, tomorrow's debt

Today's college students have it tough. Members of the graduating class of 2014 averaged $33,000 in student loan debt, according to college planning website Edvisors. That is more than the average transaction price of a new car, according to Kelley Blue Book.

Meanwhile, total student loan debt across the nation exceeds $1 trillion, which is more than all outstanding credit card debt in the country, according to a survey by the Council of Economic Education. Today's students have to get creative to shrink those costs.

Enter the realm of social media.

More than 300,000 social posts have mentioned scholarships in the past 30 days, according to social media monitoring platform Topsy. Compare that to approximately 22,000 results for “student debt”.

Facebook’s high school and college demographic eclipses 7 million people, with almost 30 percent of those users falling into the prime scholarship-searching ages of 18 to 22, according to Facebook Insights. And 1 million Twitter users fall under the “college life” designation, according to Twitter Analytics.

Conversely, Google search volume for the term “scholarships” has dropped off by two-thirds in the last 10 years, according to a Google Trends query.

So, the message is clear: students are moving the scholarship search away from search engines and toward social media.

Companies and institutions are catching on. Many are using social media not only as a tool to promote traditional essay-based scholarships, but also as a platform to introduce new strategies that speak directly to today's college students.

New scholarships for a new generation

Dr. Pepper, for example, asks students to upload YouTube videos to enter their Dr. Pepper Tuition giveaway. Meanwhile,, a social change organization geared toward young people, offers texting challenges that help educate kids on the dangers of texting while driving for a chance to win money for school. sticks to the essay formula, but asks entrants to distill their responses to 140-character tweets.

The social media and promotion team at embraced this trend by launching a scholarship around the ubiquity of selfies. For an award of up to $3,000, the scholarship simply asks entrants to envision themselves 10 years from now in their dream career and snap a #FutureSelfie and post it on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and more.

“We’re thrilled to award a few creative folks with some funds that can chip away the tuition bill,” says Brandon Duncombe, Promotion Manager for Bankrate. “Selfies are an exciting way to earn money for school. Right now, they’re a snapshot of the present. We’re excited to see the response and how students will use them to illustrate their dreams.”

The platform auto-compiles images from across all of the aforementioned networks in a stream of photos on the website, and auto-sends a confirmation message to every entrant.

“We wanted to be platform-agnostic and support people on their social network of choice,” says Duncombe. “We realize this first scholarship launch is a ‘beta test’ for us, and going forward we’d like to add more networks, platforms and ways to enter. We realize people express themselves in myriad ways and we want to join the conversation, wherever it may be.”

The cost of an education is rising, with more responsibility placed on the shoulders of teens than ever before. Today's students smartly use social media to their advantage, and companies and institutions offering scholarships may need to catch on sooner rather than later, or risk missing the conversation altogether.