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High school senior scholarships are great -- but then what?

If you’ve ever donated to a scholarship program, you know how powerful it is to watch a student receive the award you supported. Whether you gave $10 on your smartphone or started a $10,000 endowment for your high school, it’s an incredible feeling to see, meet and learn about the deserving student you’ve helped send to college. That’s why high schools’ senior scholarship-award nights are such great events: donors, teachers and families all come together to celebrate student achievement, honor the best and brightest, and send everyone off to school with all the support the community can provide.


For too many of those students, however, the following year is a much different story.


High school senior scholarships are only part of the story.

Freshman year is almost always the high water mark for college students’ financial aid. Their hard work in high school has turned into scholarships from their community, and they’re likely to have been offered their school’s best possible financial aid package. After all, colleges and universities across the country are competing to recruit talented incoming students, and a great financial aid offer to a high school senior can make a huge difference. (This post from Princeton Review has some good tricks for researching individual colleges’ tendencies.)


But once students are in school and pursuing their degree, their aid for subsequent years can shrink for a variety of reasons; one-time high school senior scholarships are used up, and allocations from their school are reduced as the next class of freshmen is recruited. For students whose parents may be at their own financial limit, that typically leaves two options: going into more student loan debt, or finding a way to balance more hours of work with higher-intensity upperclass education. And while the student-debt bubble’s consequences have been well-documented, it’s the latter that may ultimately prove more damaging.


As reported in Fastweb, the 2009 study “With Their Whole Lives Ahead Of Them” revealed that work- and money-related issues were huge factors in college dropout rates: “Nearly three-quarters (71%) of students who dropped out of college said that work contributed to the decision, with more than half (54%) identifying it as a major factor. About a third (35%) said that balancing work and school was too stressful. … [o]ther major reasons for leaving school included affordability of tuition and fees (31%).”


It’s a damaging circle: from freshman with great financial aid and scholarships from home, to upperclassman with increasingly hard-to-balance work and school schedules. Every semester, the possibility of dropping out looms larger, leaving the student with college debt but without the degree that can help them increase their earning potential and pay it back.


For many qualified students, scholarships and other merit aid can help close the gap. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, the wide majority of private-sector awards are one-time, high-school senior scholarships. That’s why renewable scholarships are so crucial -- and why supporting multi-year awards is the single best thing you can do for college students right now.

Renewable scholarships have long been the vanguard of big-name, prestigious programs; the Gates Millennium Scholarship, the Coca-Cola Scholars program, and the top Buick Achievers Scholarships are all sizable, renewable scholarships that reward students for excellence in high school -- and for sustaining that excellence in college. Here at Scholarship America, our new Dream Award is a scholarship that provides awards starting with the sophomore year of college, picking up where high school senior scholarships leave off.


But that doesn’t mean that renewable scholarships have to be massive, national awards. If you’re a scholarship supporter in your community, consider focusing your giving on a multi-year scholarship for local students; if students know there’s scholarship money, even $500 or $1,000, in the bank for them in their senior year of college, the gift is both psychological and financial.

"We need to make sure our scholarships see students through to graduation, instead of just supporting them their first year," Scholarship America President & CEO Lauren Segal said in introducing the Dream Award. "It is a real tragedy for students, parents, donors and institutions when students drop out before they can complete their degree."


By supporting renewable awards that supplement high-school senior scholarships, you can help alleviate that tragedy.


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