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How Universal Application Helps Create Super Scholarship Programs

As a scholarship administrator, I had to balance the needs and wants of both students and donors. I often didn’t even consider my long hours because the primary focus was to make these two groups happy. I spent hours doing outreach at high school campuses to find applicants for niche scholarships. I can’t count the number of times application deadlines would come and go with no applicants for some of my more particular funds. Inevitably, the perfect student would have submitted applications for other scholarships but not the one for a student just like them. 

Magnifying glass point of viewThe idea of using a universal or common application to solve these issues isn’t new. Having one point of entry for consideration for multiple opportunities tends to make sense to scholarship administrators who work in this space day in and day out. However, it may mean examining the idea through the lens of your different stakeholders to get the buy-in you need for the change you want. 

The Student Lens

  • The Story: As a student looking to fund my college education, I need scholarships. I know they are out there, and my mom keeps telling me to look, but I don’t really know where to look. I went to my counselor's office at the high school, and they showed me the resource wall. It has lots of flyers and posters on it. I picked up some of them and went to some websites, but I’m still feeling lost. They all want the same information but in different ways, and I’ve missed a couple of deadlines. My friend's mom told us to fill out applications, even if it doesn’t look like we qualify, because “you never know.”
  • The Problem: The student (and many adults) do not know how to efficiently search for scholarships. Truthfully, in such a disjointed industry, even the most seasoned professionals would never be able to identify all the opportunities relevant for a single student. Niche qualifications, differing deadlines, and the lack of standardized requirements all make finding, qualifying, and applying for scholarships a task beyond the skills of our students. 
  • Why Universal Application is the Solution: While none of us can bring the entire industry under one roof, we can use universal applications and processes to make our opportunities more user-friendly for students. Using one application to enter the student into the running for multiple awards, and communicating this to students, will motivate them to make your application a priority. In addition, completing a universal application can help reduce stress for students struggling to navigate the complex college financial aid system. 

The Donor Lens

  • The Story: When my mother passed away, she requested her children establish a scholarship in her honor. She was a field biologist in the early '60s and wants to support a student going into that major. She and my father were huge USC football fans and never missed a chance to support the school. My sisters and I want the money to help a student from our small hometown. For these reasons, our scholarship is for a graduating high school senior at McFarland High School who will attend USC and study biology. 
  • The Problem: The overlap of specific criteria set by the donor can create a niche scholarship without a robust group of viable applicants. Students looking for funding can’t search for every scholarship, understand the criteria, and find every scholarship that meets their needs (see above). The choices become: (1) spend significant time searching for students who fit the criteria and provide lots of assistance to ensure they complete your application or (2) regularly having no students awarded from this fund. 
  • Why Universal Application is the Solution (In this case, part of the solution): The way universal applications help with this situation comes down to odds. A student may have never heard of this particular scholarship, but they have heard that their regional community foundation has scholarships. With the entry point for all opportunities being the same application, you now have hundreds of students’ information to search through to find the one eligible student you need. This is only a partial solution because some overlapping criteria create a very low likelihood that any student will meet the criteria in a given year. Here’s where your universal application can yield good data on applicants who meet just two of the criteria. Then you can approach the donor about changing one of those requirements into a preference. This would allow you to more easily find a student to fund each year while still keeping the priority for their original criteria. 

The Third-Party Interest Lens

  • The Story: As the counseling secretary for my high school, I’m in charge of collecting scholarship applications and selecting students for all our awards. You (the community foundation) hold six funds benefitting our students exclusively. We have been selecting students through our own process for years, and we don’t want to have to use your online application.
  • The Problem: Depending on your relationship with the high schools you serve and their ability to administer unbiased scholarship selection, you may or may not have an actual problem. If there’s reason to believe students are being selected for awards with bias or that applications are not provided to every student, you may want to bring the process in-house. Bias is rarely intentional, particularly among school staff who work so hard to support students.
  • The less “problem,” more “potential bonus” will come from looking at the total number of applicants you get from that school for all your other scholarships. By making their designated funds available through the school’s process, staff are inadvertently decreasing the number of applicants applying for your other awards.
  • Why Universal is the Solution: If you’ve had issues with bias, bringing applications in-house is probably a move you’ve been trying to make, but without buy-in from the school staff, it can be hard. That’s where the potential bonus comes into play. To explain the potential bonus, you’ll need to know a few things. What’s the total dollar amount of funding designated for that school? (Let’s use a total of $12,000 from six funds as our example.) You also want to know how much funding is available at your foundation for students from this high school who qualify. This funding would have no high school or location restriction prohibiting them from being selected. (For our example, we will say $180,000 in funding.) So, the applicants going through the high school process are competing for $12,000. If they want to be considered for the other $180,000, they would need to complete another application, and many, due to ignorance or time,  will not.  

One of my first personal successes with using a universal application came from this scenario: The high school had been reluctant to join the online application trend and finally did so with reservation. The counselors served as the selection committee online for the scholarships they regularly selected, but that’s when the magic of universal came into play. They had $7,000 of guaranteed funding for their students, but because of the universal application, their students won $27,000 in scholarships—the $7,000 they were expecting and an additional $20,000 they hadn’t realized their students would be competitive candidates for. 

The Administrative Lens

  • The Story: Be a Hero in Student StoriesAs a Scholarship Administrator, I feel a lot of pressure to get things right. I want the students to get the money they need to further their education. I want donors to be happy with how their gift is handled at the foundation. I want my fellow staff members to understand how my work is important to the foundation and the community. It would also be nice not to work 60+ hours per week during scholarship season, but there’s much to do. I want to be excited for students, but sometimes I end scholarship season feeling burnt out instead of energized. As much as I try, it’s hard to keep the positivity flowing to students, donors, and staff when I’m overwhelmed. 
  • The Problem: The sheer volume of applications that must be processed is one of the larger problems in scholarship administration. An increase in funds or an increase in applicants exponentially increases the number of applications. In many communities, both are happening simultaneously. In communities where donors are becoming interested in funding “back-to-school” and trade-based scholarships, you may see an increase in the number of funds and an entirely different set of individuals to engage with your scholarship processes. A high number of grant applicants in a particular cycle might be 50, but for scholarships, it’s common for a mid-sized community foundation to receive 500+ applications. This volume reduces the time you have to spend on providing stellar service to your other audiences. 
  • Why Universal Application is the Solution: Universal applications streamline your intake process to allow for the most efficient administrative workflow. A single application per student will reduce your processing workload. Increased efficiency in managing your committees makes evaluation communication more effective. The aspects discussed above allow administrators to more easily meet the needs and expectations of multiple audiences. 

Bringing all your funds under a universal application umbrella can be a time-consuming endeavor, but with lasting benefits on all sides, it’s well worth the work. 

About the Author

Born and raised in Bakersfield, California, Alyse has deep roots and strong connections to the nonprofit sector. Having worked in the field of college access and scholarships for over 10 years, with a focus on students residing in California’s Central Valley, she believes in the power of scholarships to uplift students, families, and communities. Before joining Foundant, Alyse spent three years with the Kern Community Foundation managing their grant and scholarship giving, as well as nonprofit relationships. Alyse joined the Foundant team in 2017 as a Client Success Manager (trainer, consultant, and emergency support provider) for Grants and Scholarships. After training and advising hundreds of clients, she led the Community Foundation Grant/Scholarship Client Services Team. Her passion for community building, professional development, and real-world impact has helped form the service philosophy for Foundant’s Client Success team. Areas of expertise: scholarship and grant process best practices, team building, remote work, and demystifying complex systems to foster accessibility.

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