4 Takeaways from the 2019 Partner Summit: How to Start a Scholarship Fund That Really Helps
By Matt Konrad
At Scholarship America, student needs are at the center of everything we do—and those needs are constantly evolving. At the second annual Scholarship America Partner Summit, we brought together students, advocates and partners to learn how the best scholarship programs are making an impact. Here are four takeaways about how to start a scholarship fund that supports students all the way through college and beyond.
1. “Student support” is more than a check.
The Summit kicked off with a panel discussion among scholarship recipients, and they brought up a theme that would resonate throughout the day: the money they received was vital, but social and cultural supports during college were equally important.
Scholarship America Dream Award scholar Marcos Navarro-Garcia summed up the experience of many first-generation and low-income students: “It’s hard to get into college. It’s even harder to stay afloat.” Even with scholarship funds to cover tuition, students frequently find themselves working long hours to afford living expenses—and struggling to balance these necessities with the million life changes that come with going off to college.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways for scholarship providers to help. The best programs connect their new recipients with fellow students and alumni; provide reminders of key dates and deadlines; and offer a phone number, an online network or an app where students can turn when they need to know “what now?” Coca-Cola Scholar Siona Sharma addressed the importance of those supports: “Being able to talk to people who were raised with the social capital I didn’t necessarily have, and being able to connect that to my own experience, has taught me more than any career workshop.”
2. Mentors (and alumni) can make the difference.
Every student, alumnus and scholarship provider who addressed the Partner Summit stressed the importance of mentoring—especially when it comes to learning the essential skills that aren’t taught in high school.
As National Honor Society scholar Jenny Rodriguez said, “I was taught how to read a financial aid package, but I was not taught how to advocate for myself. I had to grow up quickly and find people who could help me.” For students who are trying to excel in class, pay for college and deal with the culture shock of a new experience, mentoring is a vital part of college success.
This can mean something formalized and built in to your scholarship program. Like all recipients of the $25,000 Chick-fil-A True Inspiration scholarship, Devin Lintao was paired with an experienced mentor—in his case, Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy’s grandson Mark. This connection inspired Devin to see what he had in common with a Fortune 500 executive, and to set his own sights higher.
Building mentoring into your scholarship fund doesn’t have to be top-down either. The Coca-Cola Scholars program provides an example of another method. With 6,000 recipients over a quarter century, the Coca-Cola Scholars program has a rich history and a deep network of alumni. And with the motto “Once a Coke Scholar, always a Coke Scholar,” the program has done a remarkable job of keeping its alumni engaged.
Through in-person meetups, a dedicated website, a Facebook group and the #CokeScholars hashtag, the program continually connects new students with alumni mentors at their schools and in their fields: exactly the kind of connections first-generation, low-income and struggling college students need.
3. Success in college starts early.
Mentoring is an impactful way to help students address the challenges of college—and appropriate early intervention can help them avoid some of those challenges in the first place.
Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars has built their support model to inspire, educate and celebrate scholarship recipients starting in their sophomore year of high school. Serving communities where college isn’t always common, they’ve developed partnerships with local universities to offer immersive campus visits and whole-student experiences. This gives their students, most of whom are low-income, a realistic look at what’s possible.
To keep the momentum going, Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars also connects students with advisors to help pick a college; they offer high school kids test prep, business and social etiquette training and even a celebratory luncheon with local leaders, where scholarship recipients can connect with mentors, supporters and potential future employers.
Dollars for Scholars, of course, is a nonprofit dedicated to students; your organization may not have the time or staff available to do all of this. But, as you look at how to start your scholarship fund, it’s important to find some early-intervention opportunities—anything from job shadowing to business-meeting basics to a lunch or dinner celebration.
4. Follow up and follow through.
In 2014, Scholarship America started our Dream Award scholarship—an award for students who had already completed a year of college, but who faced financial obstacles to continuing. The program addresses a little-acknowledged problem: scholarships often dry up after a student’s freshman year, leaving them on the hook for thousands more dollars in tuition.
If you want to start a scholarship fund that truly makes a difference, offering renewable, multi-year awards is one of the best ways to do it. It may mean awarding fewer students, but those who earn your scholarships will have a much more committed depth of support.
In addition, flexibility is important. No two student journeys are alike—and the disbursement of funds may not always be straightforward. Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars told our Partner Summit attendees how they stay nimble: their scholarship funds can be used at any accredited college, university or trade school, and they’re disbursed on a flexible two-year basis. That way, if students have a financial aid overage freshman year, they can apply their Dollars for Scholars award to their sophomore bill instead.
Other partners help students maximize their award by earmarking it for specific expenses, deferring it until needed or distributing to a qualified 529 plan. No matter what the solution, though, the point is the same: know your recipients, and be flexible enough to meet their needs.
The second annual Scholarship America Partner Summit gave all of our attendees a unique look at how great scholarship programs operate, and at the keys to student success. Whether you’re just starting a scholarship fund or you’re looking to boost your impact, these four takeaways can ensure you’re focused on today’s students’ most pressing needs.