Completion Matters: Creating Scholarship Programs With Real Impact
When you think of “scholarships,” chances are you’re thinking about a beaming high-school student, shaking hands with the president of the local Rotary Club at a celebratory lunch, and taking home a $1,000 check for her freshman year. Or maybe you think of an awards night — the local high school’s best and brightest, convened in an auditorium to find out who’s earned which scholarships from their community.
These scenarios happen throughout the country, and, as high school students move on to postsecondary education, they are vitally important — the scholarship funds help make freshman year more affordable, and the celebration of education helps ensure a college-going culture in the community.
But, increasingly, they’re not enough. The real cost of college continues to go up. At the same time, the face of college students is changing. All of which means it’s more and more important for scholarship programs to address different kinds of students, at all stages of their postsecondary education.
Simply getting started isn’t enough.
82 percent of American high school students earned their diploma in 2015 — a second consecutive record high. Over the last decade, between 65 and 70 percent of those graduates have gone on to some kind of postsecondary education, often with the help of freshman-year scholarships.
But these promising starts aren’t all turning into degrees. As Harvard researchers discovered in 2011, only about half of the students who enroll in four-year colleges end up earning a degree within six years. It’s even more grim for those pursuing associate’s degrees: just 29 percent graduate within three years.
There are lots of reasons for this, of course, and not all of them have to do with the cost of college. But the inability to pay is a major factor. Six of every ten students who drop out have no parental help paying for tuition. And, according to College Atlas, “Being unable to balance school, jobs and family is one of the top reasons for dropping out.” This is a huge issue for students whose scholarship funds run out after freshman year. And it’s an even bigger issue for the more than 8 million college students who are age 25 or older. This “nontraditional” student cohort makes up nearly 40 percent of the total college population, but they’re not the focus of most scholarships.
Tuition isn’t the only college cost to worry about.
For college students of all ages, tuition is just a part of what’s known as the Total Cost of Attendance (TCA). That total encompasses what it really costs to attend college; the University of California provides an excellent example of TCA calculation at their Berkeley campus. There’s the $13,000 tuition for in-state students, but the total cost is between $10,000 and $20,000 more, thanks to room, board, personal expenses and supplies.
Some scholarship programs allow their funds to be used on that extra $10-$20,000, but many others are restricted just to tuition and fees. As a result, even those students who have their tuition fully covered by scholarships still need to fill in the gap with some combination of work and loans — either taking away from their time at school, or saddling them with debt after graduation.
Even then, there’s no guarantee that students can make ends meet long enough to graduate. As the Wisconsin HOPE Lab discovered, “One in five of [4,300 community college students surveyed] said that, in the last 30 days, she had gone hungry because of a lack of money. Thirteen percent had experienced a form of homelessness in the last year, having been thrown out or evicted, lived in shelters or abandoned buildings, or gone without a place to sleep at all. Far more — just over half — were at risk of each of those conditions. A majority had financial aid and jobs, but it wasn’t enough.” Every semester finds these students walking a fine line between persisting and dropping out, and it only takes a small setback to derail their education.
How to create full-spectrum solutions with impact.
At Scholarship America, we’re working to help close these gaps by re-thinking just what a scholarship program can be. We collaborated with the Wisconsin HOPE Lab to look at best practices for emergency funding: small, one-time grants that can help those students on the edge pull through when they’re faced with financial setbacks. And our Dreamkeepers Emergency Financial Assistance program has helped thousands of community college students stay in school despite financial emergencies.
To address the need for scholarships beyond freshman year, Scholarship America used an initial donation from Katie Couric to develop the Dream Award. Now, we’re working to duplicate these successful models in conjunction with companies who seek to make an impact.
The newest example comes from our work with Wells Fargo, who recently launched a pair of programs to distribute $2 million in assistance to U.S. military veterans: the Wells Fargo Veterans Scholarships and the Wells Fargo Veterans Emergency Grants.
The scholarship component of the program provides awards up to $10,000 for veterans who are returning to college or technical school after being honorably discharged (and to spouses of disabled veterans). The scholarships are renewable and grow by $1,000 each year, helping to ensure that students can start and finish their degrees. The companion emergency grant program distributes immediate grants up to $1,000 to eligible veterans who are enrolled in postsecondary education and experience unexpected financial difficulties that might cause them to drop out. Together, the two programs aim to address persistence and completion issues for a group that frequently has to choose between school, work and family commitments.
“Wells Fargo continues to focus on helping veterans transition successfully to civilian life,” said Jerry Quinn, Wells Fargo Military and Veteran Programs manager. “Working together with Scholarship America is a perfect fit. The scholarships and emergency grants are there to empower veterans to achieve their educational goals, to help them succeed personally, and to make our communities stronger as a result.”
The current state of American higher education means it’s more important than ever to award scholarships with real impact. By looking beyond freshman year — and by helping with more than tuition — we can work together to do just that.