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Engaging Communities Through Scholarships

By Matt Konrad

Updated December 2019

By Matt Konrad

At Scholarship America, our driving force has always been that of community engagement. We were founded on the idea that community support could send young people to college—and, over the last 60 years, we have worked with all kinds of partners to create community-engaged scholarships. 

If you’re looking to impact student lives with a scholarship or other education assistance program, we’re here to help ensure that your community is engaged at every step. And those steps start with defining just what community you’re aiming to serve.

Where—and who—is your community?

When Scholarship America was founded, our concept of community was simple: the people of Fall River, Massachusetts, began raising money for their local high school graduates to afford college. The idea spread to more towns across New England, and then around the country. In 1970, we began serving a new type of community: companies that wanted to help their employees and their families attend college. Since then, we’ve continued to expand the communities we serve—and the need to do so has expanded along with us.

Companies, colleges and the people within them are more globally connected than ever before. That means, more so than ever, “community” is a concept that needs to be defined before starting a scholarship program. Sometimes, that may be a traditional geographic community — and that’s just where our Dollars for Scholars model comes in.

Dollars for Scholars is the descendant of that first community scholarship drive; today, it exists in nearly 500 cities, towns and school districts around the nation. Each year, more than 10,000 dedicated volunteers come together to raise funds and distribute scholarships to local students. Their association with the national Scholarship America organization means they can focus on their core skills and their local efforts, while we handle the technology, nonprofit certification and customer support to make their programs run smoothly.

[Interested in learning more or affiliating with Dollars for Scholars? Click here to find out how your community can benefit]

It’s also worth thinking about “community” in the wider sense, and finding a group of people whose common element centers around paying for college. For example, consider the nationwide community of first-generation college students—those trying to become the first in their families to graduate from college. While they’re found all across the country, their needs are similar, and the types of support that will help a middle-class first-gen student in California will also help a first-gen student from a poor household in South Carolina. By focusing on a community of need such as this one, you can ensure your scholarship dollars do good where they’re needed most.

Knowing your community means knowing what will help them.

In the same way that definitions of communities have expanded, so have definitions of student support. Over the last two decades, college has become both more expensive and more important than ever, and it’s no longer enough just to give high school graduates a handshake and a check for a few hundred dollars.

Today, the “average” college student is older than ever before; they’re likely to be balancing work and school; they frequently have families of their own. Most are living off campus, and many are struggling to make ends meet while still paying for their education. 

By identifying and serving a community based on need or demographic, you’re taking the first step toward meeting these students where they need help—and as you continue to support your chosen community, you’ll gain a greater depth of knowledge about their specific needs. 

Here's how Scholarship America develops custom solutions


To take our example of first-generation college students from above: students whose parents didn’t go to college are more likely to come from low-income households; they’re also more likely to struggle with understanding the financial aid process, since they don’t have a parent who’s gone through it before. Scholarship dollars will be a great help for them—but so will social supports like pairing them with a financial aid mentor who can teach them about FAFSA deadlines, Pell Grant funding and other sources of aid they might not otherwise know. 

Alternatively, say you decide to focus on adult or “non-traditional” students, returning to college after time off. A community-engaged scholarship program for this group needs to address the realities of commuting, child care and lost work hours; that may mean expanding the potential uses of scholarship funds to include expenses beyond tuition. Whatever community you identify, the next step is to discover and engage with their unique struggles.

Scholarship America builds scholarship programs to engage with communities of all kinds.

Learning about student struggles is never easy, especially if you’re serving a community outside your town, school district or company. 

That’s where Scholarship America can help. Between our Dollars for Scholars network, our work with our partners and our own scholarship programs, we have developed comprehensive solutions for all kinds of communities. Some are geographic, from small towns to large urban school districts. And others are the kinds of need-based communities we’ve looked at here: students whose financial aid runs out before they graduate. Students who lost loved ones on 9/11. Students who face sudden and unexpected financial crises

Whatever community you’re focused on, we can help you understand how best to help them. To learn more, check out our new ebook on “Emerging Trends in Student Aid,” or get in touch for a free, no-obligation consultation with one of our program design experts. Creating a community-engaged scholarship is vital if you want to make an impact on student lives. Let’s work together to make it happen.

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