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Strategic, Need-Based Scholarships: What are they and why do they matter?

My first full-time job after college was implementing a scholarship program for my regional California Student Opportunity and Access Program (Cal-SOAP). At the time, I didn’t realize I was doing anything out of the ordinary for a scholarship. I created an application and scoring rubric. I was instructed to make the rubric favor low-income students, first-generation students, and students whose GPA fell between a 2.5 and 3.75. That’s not to say we didn’t fund students who were outside this criteria, but these are the students we were looking to fund. Also, all of the students had to have participated in the college readiness activities our program provided.

This was my first introduction to the concept of strategic, need-based scholarships. I managed exclusively these types of scholarships until taking a position at a community foundation in 2014. That’s where I recognized that the type of scholarships I had been managing were, by far, in the minority of those being funded. Over the next three years, with the leadership of our CEO and the support of the College Futures Foundation, we transitioned the majority of our common, merit-based scholarships to strategic need-based awards. 

I’ve heard this term tossed back and forth among scholarship administrators over the years and I’ve heard many definitions and versions. I believe these look different in every community, depending on your community's needs. Below, I’ll outline what I’ve learned over the years and some of the variations I’ve heard throughout the country. 

What is a Strategic, Need-Based Scholarship?
These are need-based scholarship awards that are part of a larger community strategy to improve educational outcomes. In this model, scholarship dollars are leveraged and combined with additional educational support to become a link in a chain with a combined goal of student success and community improvement.

How do you know what your community needs?
The first step in deciding if this approach to scholarship giving is right for your foundation is to catalog what you know and what you still need to learn about your community. Whether you have staff to do the research or need to bring in some help, understanding the facts, not perception, of your community is key. To start, you’ll want to know your community high school graduation and college-going rates. You’ll want to understand the degree completion rates at your local college/university, if you’re lucky enough to have one. Finally, you’ll want to understand what kinds of academic/college access supports are in place for students in your area. (This is just the beginning, but it’s a place to start.)

Does the high school provide all the support available to local students? Do they assist with college applications, selection, FAFSA applications, or deciphering student aid packages from colleges and universities? In my experience, many schools partner with external programs to meet this need of their students. A state program, nonprofit, college or university may be partnering with the school to help students learn to navigate the complex higher education system. 

Programs providing support to students are going to have invaluable knowledge of the college access landscape in your community. To make decisions about your scholarships without first establishing a relationship and open dialog with these groups would be a mistake. Bring their voice to the table. 

How do you leverage scholarship funding?
We all want our scholarships to have a lasting impact. Higher education (vocational or degree) can lift entire families out of the cycle of generational poverty. This scholarship model proposes that providing academic, financial, professional networking, mental health, and other support for at risk populations is the key to a successful, life-changing scholarship program.

If you’re a small-staffed community foundation, providing academic counseling and other supports to your students might be impossible. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day and your staff was not selected based on their knowledge of college financial aid and navigating the college system. That’s ok. You don’t have to own providing these services. 

In nearly every community across the nation, someone is doing this work. It may be a Librarian at a small rural school who runs the College Club or a state funded program that places college students in high schools (like the program I worked for in college). It may be a nonprofit created to fill a need in your community or an AVID program imbedded into the school itself. Whoever it is, they hold one piece of the puzzle. They provide academic support (and possibly more). You hold another piece, financial support. Scholarship dollars are one of the hardest pieces for the academic support providers to secure. They are likely not working with donors, but focused on students. 

When you step in to create strong partnerships between these pieces, you remove unnecessary, and unintentional barriers from students. If you can connect your scholarship recipients with these resources, you’re not just funding their education, but helping to transform their lives. Your impact, and that of your donors, goes far beyond the check you cut for their educational expenses.

Where do donors come in?
As a foundation, you’re in a unique position to sell donors on a more impactful way of scholarship making. You have proven yourself to donors as a trusted scholarship manager. Introducing your partnership with a college access program to your donors will likely be a door into a world they are only vaguely aware of. At this point, you will have become incredibly knowledgeable about college attendance in your community. You have data and resources to lead an important discussion and answer questions. 

Use the data to form the narrative of your program. When I first began seeing the data for my community, I was shocked. I knew we had a lower high school graduation rate and I quickly saw we had a low college attendance rate, but I didn’t know that 1 in 4 young adults were not employed or in school. When we broke it down further, we saw what we should have expected, low-income and first-generation students were not going to college or going and not completing. We also knew this was not from lack of ability, but lack of system savvy and support (mostly financial). This is the narrative that won over our staff, our board, and eventually, our donors. 

Many donors give scholarships simply because they care about the community. They may be among the first to support your foundation’s shift. Their funds can be used in direct partnership with college access programs, providing a financial support piece to a student’s puzzle. 

Other donors may see the foundation’s new vision for scholarships, but are not yet ready to make their scholarship a direct link in the chain. They value their preferences in student selection. I found this most common among memorial scholarships. However, with a strong narrative of meaningful impact, these donors may allow you to begin the selection with a strategic need-base lens, and bring in their preference for final selection. In my experience, I was able to find students who met both criteria the majority of the time. 

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Strategic Need-Based Scholarships can look differently in different communities. I should also mention that it’s just the beginning. When you open the dialog with education providers in your area, you’ll be amazed what conversations you’ll be invited to in the future. Your foundation may be given a voice in an entirely new conversation. As an Education outsider, your perspective is fresh and needed. You may also find yourself playing the part of neutral host for conversations between districts or between k-12 and colleges/universities. Lastly, you may have your partnering college access programs coming to you as a thought partner or for meeting space. 

You may be funding students, but you can provide much more intangible support to the education industry in your community than you would think. So, be the link in the chain, the piece of the puzzle. Step forward and fill the gap. 

Be a Hero in Student Stories

National College Access Network:
College Futures Foundation:

-Strategic Scholarship Giving for Student Success (2015): 

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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