Provider Focus: Targeting Scholarships for Educational Success
By Matt Konrad
As the nation’s leading designer of custom scholarship programs, we’ve had a front-row seat to some significant changes in higher education over the past two years. The COVID pandemic meant upheaval in course delivery; rethinking of admissions and of student life; decreased enrollment and lower student engagement; and a corresponding drop in families pursuing scholarships and financial aid.
Now, we’re looking toward recovery—and working on ways to build systems that consider the lessons of the pandemic and strive to do better than before. When it comes to getting students enrolled, engaged and completing college, there’s a lot to consider. Here are four areas where Scholarship America and our partners are focusing as we build impactful programs.
Finding the right applicants, not the most applicants
More than ever before, students’ time is at a premium. Seven out of 10 college students are balancing full-time school with work; more than 20% are parents; and we’d venture to say not a single one has as much free time as they’d like to search out and apply for every scholarship opportunity they can find.
Instead, they’re going to prioritize, and seek out programs that fit their skills, interests and identities—and that means you should, too. Obviously, a scholarship that gives an eye-popping award amount is going to draw students’ attention, but that total isn’t the only thing that can get you noticed.
No matter what your budget is, start with a clear understanding of who you want to help, and how you can do so. Think about what you can provide in terms of support beyond the check, and how you can make your scholarship renewable and sustain your support—even at a smaller dollar amount—over multiple years.
With bedrock guidelines like that, expert scholarship designers like those at Scholarship America can help you build a program targeted to just the right applicants. It’s efficient and effective to build an applicant pool that’s 2x or 3x larger than your intended number of recipients, rather than casting a wide net and hoping to sort through a million applications to find the “perfect” students.
Striking the right balance
Of course, there’s an unavoidable fact with any targeted scholarship: the more targeted your program gets, the fewer students will qualify.
To ensure you have plenty of targeted applicants to select from, decide which requirements are most important to you, and to the communities you’re trying to help. Are you set on awarding students in a specific major or field? Is it vital that your scholarship goes to a certain school or type of school? Do you want to ensure that you’re awarding recipients with financial need, or those with kids of their own, or those with a high GPA, or who are trying to return to school?
Wherever your passion and your goals lie—those should be the main, readily identifiable requirements for your scholarship. Criteria that are less important can be included as preferences—for example, you can require a student to show financial need, and tell applicants that preference will be given to engineering majors. That way, you’re keeping your program open to all students in need, but still expressing where you hope your funds will go. By doing so, you can ensure a robust group of applicants and award your scholarships to exactly the students you’re working to help.
Meeting students where they are
One of the lingering effects of the pandemic has been the decentralization of school services, especially on college campuses. Even before 2020, the percentage of students living on campus had been falling for years; now, with hybrid and remote classes being a fairly permanent option, potential applicants don’t necessarily have an on-campus, one-stop spot to learn about scholarships. And that means it’s increasingly important to get your program in front of students where they are.
Sometimes, there are clear places to start: scholarships for your employees’ families can be advertised through internal newsletters, chats and social media; awards for specific high schools or colleges can be announced via official school channels. (However, it’s important to remember that getting information to schools doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll get to students—make sure and leverage personal contacts if you can, and work to reach teachers and advisors who have a direct connection with students who may be eligible.)
When it comes to programs with wider eligibility, it’s not enough just to add your scholarship to a few databases and expect the applications to roll in. Students, especially current undergrads and those looking to return to school, are often on their own when it comes to finding scholarships—and they’re used to starting any search on social media. Outreach via youth-focused platforms like Instagram is vital, and spending a little bit of money on social promotion can have a big impact.
Similarly, while emails and press/blog articles can spread the word, there’s nothing like personal outreach. If you offer renewable scholarships or internships, or you have other ways of connecting to past recipients, they can be your best source of marketing. Ask them to raise awareness on social, or get together and record a quick interview—a YouTube video featuring an alumnus or current scholar can reach thousands of potential applicants right in their playlists!
Remember, students are trying to get by and get ahead
Scholarships are just one piece of student life, and your scholarship will have the most reach and impact if you consider the whole student from the beginning.
As mentioned earlier, around 70% of students are working while in college; offering paid internship opportunities as part of your program will help it stand out to applicants and fit in with recipients’ lives. (And if you don’t want to exclude applicants who live far away, you can consider virtual training and mentoring options, too.)
Similarly, old ideas about student calendars and “busy” times of year don’t necessarily apply anymore. Sure, there are some key dates—FAFSA applications open October 1; admissions decisions are usually due May 1—but the fact of the matter is that students are busy with work, life and school all year. Tools like the Scholarship America Hub allow them to search when it’s convenient for them, and to sign up for reminders when the right scholarships open up. And if your scholarship is thoughtfully created, targeted and marketed, those students will take the time to apply, whenever that reminder shows up in their inbox.
As we look back on the last few years, it’s clear that there’s no single explanation to account for the million-student college enrollment decrease during the pandemic. The loss of the campus experience, the temptation to stop out and the appeal of high entry-level wages all played their part, and hundreds of thousands of high school grads left their educational pathways.
Returning to those pathways will pay off, for those who can make it happen; people who are able to complete a two- or four-year degree dramatically increase their earning power and quality of life. And impactful, targeted scholarship assistance
By creating and publicizing impactful, targeted scholarships that provide multi-year funding and social/cultural supports, we can help bring enrollment numbers back better than before, and give students the flexibility to pay the bills and pursue their dreams.