By Amy Ronnkvist
When it comes to providing scholarships, there are three major questions to answer. In Part 1 of this series, we looked at the “why” element—determining what you truly want to accomplish by awarding a scholarship. In Part 2, we delved into the “how,” looking at ways to identify the students who need your help. In this final installment, we’ll take a closer look at the “what”—that is, what to look for in your recipients, and what exactly your scholarship program should provide to give them the best chance of success.
What To Look For: Asking The Right Questions
Once you’ve identified your “why” and “how,” it’s time to start developing an application that shines a spotlight on the qualities you want to reward. The scholarship application is effectively your only way to learn about students, so asking the right questions is vital.
The typical application covers five main areas: basic identifying information, academics, activities, financial need* and a personal statement or essay. This is a solid model to start from—but, depending on your audience and outcomes, the questions you ask in each area may be very different.
(*Not all scholarships take financial need into consideration, of course. Your “why” and “how” answers will help you decide your course of action!)
When it comes to academics, the strongest indicator of student success in higher education is a combination of both GPA and standardized test scores; the former measures academic consistency and the latter measures preparation and performance under pressure. It’s important to know both. However, if you’re gearing your scholarship toward first-generation, low-income or nontraditional students, remember that they face documented testing inequity due to lack of access to testing preparation. Programs for this audience should consider putting less emphasis on test score.
Another way to look at readiness for higher ed? Ask about participation in AP/IB, college prep or dual-enrollment college courses. These are all good predictors of college success.
As you move on to activities, it’s even more important to be flexible. A long list of extracurriculars may look impressive, but you’ll find better candidates if you dig deeper. Consider asking about depth of commitment and lessons learned from one activity, rather than getting a laundry list. And don’t forget, first-generation students and/or those with high financial need may not have the time to devote to activities, but can demonstrate involvement and leadership through work experience, at-home responsibilities or family care.
The essay or personal statement is the applicant’s real chance to shine. To help them out, ensure that you provide clear instructions and ask straightforward questions that get at what you want to know most. Explore the student’s goals, their persistence, their grit and their ability to overcome obstacles. Those qualities, even more than grades or test scores, are likely to help them succeed in college.
(You should also step back and ask if a written essay is the right way for your target students to express themselves! For many audiences, a video, an artistic submission or even an interview may be more appealing—and “essay-less scholarship applications” are wildly popular with applicants.)
Finally, there’s the financial need component. This can be the biggest headache of a scholarship program, but you’ll want to start by asking for some basic information from the student’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form is available to students each year starting October 1, and those who have completed it will have a good idea of their family’s expected contribution. If they have a college in mind, or are already in college, they should also have a sense of their unmet financial need. Those two numbers will give you a solid overview of the applicant’s financial state. If you want to dig in further, we recommend the National Scholarship Providers’ Association’s member toolkit as a good resource.
What To Deliver: Three Pillars of a Successful Scholarship
Despite the vast differences among college students today, there are some common elements in supporting their educational goals. What we’ve discovered over the years is that a truly successful student support program comes down to assessing the students that best fit your “why” and “how,” and providing them three things: social capital, cultural capital and financial capital.
Financial capital is the most obvious of the three: a scholarship is money for higher education, after all. But it’s not necessarily straightforward, either. For example, you’ll need to determine whether your funds are restricted to tuition, or if students can use them for other educational or living expenses. (These expenses are often crippling for lower-income or higher-need students—but funds used to pay them may have tax implications.)
You’ll also need to decide if you want your scholarship to be a one-time-only award, or a renewable offering; the latter has been shown to be more effective in getting students through college, but also represents a larger financial commitment. A majority of students take more than four years to complete college, and a large percentage transfer schools at some point; you’ll want to set guidelines in advance for these situations as well.
Cultural capital is not necessarily something that would jump to mind as part of a scholarship program, but it’s an important component, especially for first-generation students. In higher-education terms, it can also be defined as “institutional knowledge”—understanding how the financial aid system works, knowing what to expect on campus and being prepared for the informal learning and networking opportunities that help students make the most of college.
As part of our scholarship offerings, Scholarship America is piloting a partnership with WhichWay, a financial literacy tool from Student Connections. This tool helps new and returning college students better manage their finances (including scholarship funds, student loans and personal spending). 9 out of 10 students in the pilot have reported positive behavioral change, and 85 percent reported they will use tools provided or suggested in the courses.
Adding a mentoring program to your scholarship is another major way to develop cultural capital in students. At Scholarship America, we partner with EduGuide, an app-based mentoring program that pairs students with expert mentors in key areas. Feedback from EduGuide illustrates the power of cultural capital: 51 percent of students report better grades, and 76 percent of staff report that EduGuide students respond better to challenges.
Scholarship America Dream Award recipient April Lewis says: “Thanks to the [mentoring] modules, I find myself studying smarter, giving advice to my peers, and continuing to persevere even when times seem tough (all of which are areas where I initially struggled).”
Peer connections like April’s are also a major part of social capital: the third pillar of a great scholarship program. For students from low-income families, and those whose parents didn’t go to college, life on campus can be a jarring, isolating experience.
On-campus social programs and online mentoring services can help, but your scholarship can also be an unexpected source of support. As you make your award decisions, consider building a community where your scholarship recipients can come together. It can be in your city, on Facebook or via Slack or Hangouts—the medium isn’t important, but bringing together like-minded students with something in common is. (Peer-to-peer mentoring like that offered by BridgeEDU in Baltimore is another source of social support.)
Filling In Your Golden Circles
We hope this series has illustrated the “golden circle” path toward creating a great scholarship program: defining your “why,” discovering your “how” and developing your “what.” As we said at the outset, there are as many different scholarships as there are students. If you’re ready to start exploring program design, Scholarship America is here to help. Download our “10 Secrets to a Great Scholarship Program” ebook for more advice, or get in touch with our consultants for a no-pressure, no-obligation chat. Students are waiting for your help, and we’re ready to get you started.