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Beyond Scholarships: Supporting Students' Additional Needs

In recent weeks, I’ve had the good fortune to attend National Scholarship Providers Association programming focused on students’ needs beyond funding. You and your organization likely understand the issue: college students have many significant needs that extend well beyond tuition, fees, books, and supplies. Unfortunately, their other expenses—as well as personal, professional, social, health, and other supports—are typically not covered by financial aid. 

Such costs and services are critical to student success—especially for students facing significant barriers, including financial insecurity. Many studies highlight the positive outcomes associated with wraparound services such as emergency funds, mentoring, career counseling, financial counseling, health care, and more. In fact, federally supported programs such as the TRIO Student Support Services Program, which is hosted on college and university campuses nationwide, are inspired by such research and do their best to serve as many low-income, first-generation, and disabled students as possible. 

However, many opportunities remain to assist students beyond typical scholarships, standard financial aid, and existing college and community-based programs. Three Foundant clients, Thurgood Marshall College Fund, Pasadena Community Foundation, and Northwest Education Access, have experience in going the extra mile to provide services beyond scholarship funding. These organizations have intentionally designed and managed support services ranging from food and housing assistance, to emergency funds, to mentoring and career development opportunities, and have learned a great deal in the process. Read on for an overview of their efforts and advice for others trying to make a greater impact on students’ outcomes. Hopefully they inspire you and your organization to recognize and create strategies for responding to students’ needs beyond tuition and fees.

Thurgood Marshall College Fund

Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), headquartered in Washington, D.C., is the nation’s largest organization exclusively representing the Black college community. They offer scholarships, capacity-building and research initiatives, innovative programs, and strategic partnerships to facilitate students’ academic and professional success. 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, TMCF designed and piloted an emergency fund that provided over $1.5 million to more than 1,000 students to support their immediate housing, food, technology, and transportation needs. TMCF staff detailed their emergency fund in the recent Awarding Scholarships in a Pandemic: Promising Practices for Resilience webinar.

Well before they launched the COVID-19 emergency fund, TMCF ran multiple mentoring programs for first-generation college students to increase students’ persistence and build their personal, professional, and leadership skills and abilities.

Yakima Anderson, TMCF Manager of Scholarships, provided more details about mentoring programs and the impact on students: 

What Thurgood Marshall College Fund Does

  • As part of their scholarship awards, first-generation scholarship recipients are matched with upper-class mentors at their respective colleges and universities. 
  • Mentors and mentees meet monthly and attend an annual retreat focused on personal, professional, and leadership development. 
  • Mentors receive training and talking points to guide their monthly meetings. 
  • Mentors receive stipends to compensate them for their efforts. 

Why They Do It

  • To facilitate access and retention for first-generation students by providing the interventions most critical to student persistence. 
  • Mentors serve as role models and provide academic and social support that will assist students in making the transition from high school to college. 

Lessons Learned

  • Most mentees report mentoring has been critical to their first-year persistence. 
  • Most mentors report having a mentee has helped them develop their personal, professional, and leadership skills. 
  • It’s important to ensure both mentees and mentors can and want to meet mentoring program requirements. As a result, TMCF’s application requires students to describe their interest and readiness for the program; staff carefully assess applicants’ willingness and capacity as part of the selection process. 

Pasadena Community Foundation

The Pasadena Community Foundation (PCF) serves the community of Pasadena, California. In addition to grantmaking and capacity-building for nonprofit organizations in the region, PCF developed and runs PCF Scholars, a comprehensive education grant program. 

PCF Scholars supports Pasadena’s vulnerable and at-risk students as they graduate from high school and enroll in Pasadena City College. The program combines need-based financial assistance and long-term support from counselors and mentors to help Pasadena Unified School District students achieve their college education goals.

Kate Clavijo, PCF Senior Program Officer, shared additional details about the PCF Scholars program, its goals, and lessons learned:

What Pasadena Community Foundation Does

  • PCF Scholars offers customized financial support to meet the needs of each student. 
  • Their $3,000 awards can be used flexibly for educational or personal expenses based on students’ particular needs.
  • PCF partners with and funds multiple community-based organizations, as well as the community college, to support their work with PCF Scholars.
  • Recipients work closely with partner organizations and college staff to set and meet personal education goals, complete a transfer to a four-year college, or graduate with an Associate’s degree.

Why They Do It

  • To improve retention and four-year college completion rates among high school students. 
  • To reduce the number of hours students need to work at outside jobs, offset unexpected financial burdens, and cover the costs of books, computers, fees, and other expenses associated with earning college credit. 
  • To provide scholars with the time and capacity to focus on their schoolwork. 

Lessons Learned

  • For some students, PCF Scholar awards made the difference between staying in school and dropping out. 
  • Meaningful partnerships with student-serving organizations have helped in many ways, such as connecting students with individuals and institutions committed to their success. 
  • Collaboration on the development and implementation of the PCF Scholars program has positively enhanced PCF’s partnership with community-based organizations and community colleges.
  • Non-financial support, such as the relationships students build with trusted counselors and mentors and regular check-ins, have been just as valuable as financial support. 

Northwest Education Access

Northwest Education Access (NWEA), based in Seattle, Washington, offers individualized guidance, customized resources, and financial support to low-income students. NWEA’s students face profound barriers to higher education; their program participants include homeless students, student-parents, immigrant and refugee students, and high school dropouts. 

In the recent Resilient Philanthropy Through Collaborative Programs webinar, NWEA staff shared more about their services, community partners and supporters, and impact on students:

What Northwest Education Access Does

  • Each participant is assigned an Education Advocate, who helps the student customize his or her academic journey from start to finish. The Education Advocate continues to support that student term after term until graduation (and sometimes beyond). 
  • Scholarship funding covers expenses including tuition, fees, books, supplies, transportation, housing, and food. 
  • Participants receive referrals to any needed services, such as childcare, health services, legal advising, and more. 
  • Participants receive career advising and networking, financial advising, and college preparatory courses. 

Why They Do It

  • Meaningful relationships positively impact students’ outcomes. 
  • Even with scholarship funding, many students’ basic needs remain unmet. 
  • Low-income or highly vulnerable students need sufficient academic supports to succeed. 
  • Those without social capital, mentors, or relevant experience can struggle to access the resources they require. 

Lessons Learned

  • Participants were three times more likely to enroll in post-secondary education when working with an Education Advocate. 
  • Male students of color were seven times as likely to enroll. 

Scholarship Providers’ Advice

In addition to sharing about their program activities, intent, and lessons learned, the staff at the three organizations showcased above also offered the following advice about providing services beyond scholarship money.

Conduct a Needs Assessment

Kate Clavijo at Pasadena Community Foundation recommends a needs assessment for any organization considering the development of a student support program. 

A needs assessment is just what it sounds like: a method to understand the needs of a certain population or community. It can help identify what students need, which of those needs are being met, and which aren’t. Organizations can use such information to craft programmatic responses to those unmet needs. 

A basic needs assessment might include: 

  • A survey of community-based organizations and higher education institutions that includes questions about services to college students. 
  • A survey of students themselves (including your applicants and/or recipients) that includes questions about what they have and what they need.
  • A review of survey responses that highlights trends as well as gaps. 

Kate adds, “A needs assessment can be formal or informal. It’s a great information-gathering exercise through which you learn about what students really need. You also develop and steward relationships in the process, which can be just as valuable.” 

Evaluate Your Results

As with needs assessments, program evaluation ranges from formal to informal. An organization can create and execute a robust evaluation plan or collect basic data and anecdotal reports on activities. A best-practice evaluation includes both process evaluation (how things happen) as well as outcomes evaluation (results produced by the program). Such assessments will help you understand where to make adjustments so your activities achieve your ideal intent. 

Thurgood Marshall College Fund, for example, surveys mentors and mentees at multiple points throughout their participation. Mentors complete monthly reports on how their relationships are progressing, mentees share about their experiences each academic term, and both groups complete questionnaires after their annual leadership training event. 

For more on creating an evaluation plan, see the Developing a Scholarship Program Evaluation Plan: Lessons Learned from the Field blog. 

Refine Over Time

Go beyond just collecting information and listening to participants about their experiences. Use what you learn in your evaluative work to make meaningful program improvements. 

“The suggestions we’ve gotten from participants have helped us make the program better. For instance, our mentors offered advice on communications with mentees; thus, we’ve shifted from using only emails to text communications, as well. And feedback from both groups has helped us evolve our annual get-together into a robust training that really helps mentors and mentees grow as leaders,” shared Yakima Anderson. 

About the Author

Erika Orsulak, MPA, is a consultant and advisor to scholarship providers. Using expertise in organizational leadership, program management, development, marketing, and communications, she guides clients on strategy, program administration, technology, and stakeholder engagement. Erika has worked in the scholarship industry for ten years and in philanthropy for the entirety of her 20-year career.

Profile Photo of Erika Orsulak