Creating Scholarship Programs With Purpose, Part 2: Knowing Your Students - Scholarship America

Resources Our Blog

From thought leadership to incredible stories of student success, this is where you can get informed or get inspired about scholarships and the educational journey.

Creating Scholarship Programs With Purpose, Part 2: Knowing Your Students

By Amy Ronnkvist

There are as many unique scholarship programs as there are sponsors, but the ones that make a truly life-changing impact have a few things in common. In Part 1 of this series, we discussed “finding your ‘why’—digging into the problems you want to solve and the stories that motivate you to give a scholarship. Answering that question is the first step toward developing a truly inspiring program. Today, we’ll look at step two: getting a deeper understanding of the students you hope to serve.

There’s No Such Thing As A “Typical” College Student

To do so, the first order of business is to get rid of any assumptions you may have about the “typical” path through higher education. The old stereotype—graduate from high school, move off to college, get a degree and enter the workforce—is only true for a small group of students. As few as 16 percent of college undergrads fit that “traditional” profile; the rest have followed more winding routes that involve time off, living at home, working full time and balancing family obligations with school.

adult-students-learning-codeThe unique roads to higher education start with high school. More and more college students are coming from GED, online and homeschool programs than ever before. Sometimes they’re going right to college; more often, they’re taking gap years, working to save money or committing to military or volunteer service. An increasing number are starting at two-year colleges and transferring; still others are attending school when they can afford to, or pursuing professional certificates or apprenticeships to get into the workforce faster.

No matter how you look at it, the idea of the “traditional” college student doesn’t reflect reality anymore. According to NPR, 74 percent of students fit at least one of these “nontraditional” traits:

  • Financially independent from parents
  • Have a child
  • Single caregiver
  • Employed full time
  • Lack a traditional high school diploma
  • Delay postsecondary enrollment
  • Attend school part time

That includes the 20 percent of college students who are over 30 years old, and the 4 in 10 who attend community or technical colleges. It also includes a whopping 44 percent whose parents do not have bachelor’s degrees. For those first-generation students, the college process is even more complex—and the support of a scholarship can make a huge difference.

Navigating College As A First-Gen Student

When students are the first in their family to attend college, the learning doesn’t only happen in the classroom. Without family guidance to fall back on, everything from financial aid to getting around campus is a new experience with a steep learning curve. As a result, first-gen students are at higher risk of falling behind academically; even those who starred in high school can easily fall victim to “imposter syndrome,” where students feel like they don’t fit in academically or socially with their peers. Scholarship America Dream Award recipient Rachel Muir put it bluntly: “It was jarring to be surrounded by people who don’t know what it is to be poor.”

First-gen students also face a steeper uphill battle in terms of paying for school. The Postsecondary National Policy Institute reports “the median family income for first-generation freshmen at two- and four-year institutions was $37,565, compared to $99,635 for non-first-generation freshmen.” That income disparity means first-generation college attendees need to work more, take on more debt or cut back on classes—and all of those options distance them further from both their peers and their degrees.

Financial Need: A Snowball Can Become an Avalanche

For first-gen, low-income and other students with high financial need, money is never far from the top of their minds. There’s a constant struggle to balance school and work; breaks from school can mean missing meals or losing access to housing. If unexpected expenses occur, or scholarships are exhausted after freshman year, finances can quickly spiral out of control.

GettyImages-175138374Even students who access financial aid can struggle. Grant aid or “free college” programs may defray tuition costs but leave students on the hook for steep room, board or transportation expenses. Others are supported by federal assistance, but still can’t afford tuition—Pell Grants, which help nearly a third of all college freshmen, only cover about 25 percent of the cost of attendance. For low income students, the average unmet financial need each year is $6,000, or nearly half their average income.

In addition, new research is revealing the prevalence of food and housing insecurity among college students. The 2023 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study discovered that “22.6% of undergraduate students and 12.2% of graduate students are food insecure, and 8% of undergraduate students and 4.6% of graduate students experience homelessness. These rates were even higher at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), as well as for-profit institutions.”

Students in these precarious positions are often one financial setback away from dropping out, but traditional scholarship programs don’t often address basic needs like food and housing (in part, because of restrictive tax policy). A deeper understanding of real student needs can help ensure your scholarship program addresses all the barriers preventing them from graduating.

And make no mistake: not all those barriers are financial. In the third and final part of this series, we’ll look into the importance of social and cultural capital—and how your scholarship program can best address the whole student as they pursue their educational dreams. Follow Scholarship America on Twitter or subscribe to Success By Degrees so you don’t miss out!

Download Our Free Ebook: 10 Secrets To A Great Scholarship Program