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Use Data to Increase Access for All Students

Foundant Technologies, in collaboration with the National Scholarship Providers Association (NSPA), hosted a webinar in which three scholarship experts described their efforts to increase college access and success for all students, including those from traditionally marginalized groups. 

Like many scholarship providers, the organizations highlighted in the webinar recognized they hadn’t been serving students from certain populations as well as they could have. 

Some, for example, realized their awards to White, middle-income or wealthy, cisgendered, and able-bodied students were disproportionate to the percentage of those students in their communities. Others understood that helping student groups already facing significant barriers would require adapting their processes to better respond to those students’ skills and abilities. 

Though the webinar panelists each had different approaches to serving students equitably, they all stressed the importance of data collection and analysis in achieving their diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. The panelists shared important lessons learned including:

  1. Be intentional about what you want to accomplish
  2. Gather data about target populations
  3. Collect data on your forms
  4. Evaluate your outcomes

Below we describe these lessons and share ideas you can incorporate into your program development and evaluation almost immediately. 

1. Be Intentional About What You Want to Accomplish

Before beginning any new project or initiative, or creating data collection or analysis methodology, determine why you’re doing what you’re doing and what you hope to make possible. 

Some scholarship providers might aim to understand how well they are supporting certain student populations in their communities, such as first-generation students or Latinx students. Organizations that already have this information might have a goal to recruit more applicants from an underserved group. 

Whatever your organization’s aims, be sure to thoughtfully consider and document your approach and desired results before you implement activities. This will help you more readily track towards your desired goals. 

2. Gather Data About Target Populations

One common intent when striving to better serve all students is to shift or expand target applicant and recipient populations. 

A community foundation, for instance, might be located in a region with a high percentage of low-income students but realize they have very few low-income scholarship applicants or recipients. 

One of the first steps in working towards more low-income applicants involves gathering information about that target population. 

There are many ways to collect information about the students you hope to serve. It can be as easy as taking advantage of existing organizational knowledge or making a quick call, email, or forum post in an online community. 

Gather data from within your organization

Many organizations offer scholarships as part of a larger body of community investments. If your organization makes grants or manages programs, consider sourcing information about your target student populations from your immediate colleagues. 

For instance, the POISE Foundation, mines data from its grantmaking work to better understand Western Pennsylvania’s Black youth populations. This data informs the scholarship team’s understanding of potential applicants and recipients, and has helped them to better respond to those students’ needs and circumstances. 

Gather data from others in the industry

Foundant’s online Compass community is a great place to ask about student populations you aim to serve. Not only can you broadcast questions among the larger community, but you can also make connections with those at similar organizations that are pursuing goals like yours (or have already done so). 

The National Scholarship Providers Association also hosts a community of hundreds of scholarship providers from across the United States and Canada. Members have access to NSPA’s resource library, which includes data on specific student groups. Members can also post ideas and requests to the community and search their directory for organizations with similar target audiences. 

Use the data strategically

Once you’ve gathered information about the populations you hope to serve, compare what you’re already doing with what might best meet these students’ specific needs. 

Consider this example from the webinar: DeKalb County Community Foundation wanted to serve more low-income applicants and recipients. During their research, they learned that, in addition to attending high school or college, such students also have many other priorities including work, family, and home responsibilities. But, the scholarship provider’s application required at least a few hours to complete and focused primarily on educational and traditional extracurricular achievements. 

In order to be more responsive and inclusive of this student population, the provider streamlined their application so it took less time to complete, and edited essay questions and selection rubrics so evaluators could assess more than just school-related accomplishments. 

3. Collect Data on Your Forms

Most scholarship providers are very familiar with forms: From application forms to evaluation forms to scholarship agreement forms and more, providers collect and manage applicant and recipient form data constantly. 

These forms provide numerous opportunities to gather information in ways that provide increased accessibility and can better serve diverse applicant and recipient populations. In the webinar, Foundant Technologies Client Success Manager Elyse Pollick Byrnes shared the following excellent suggestions from scholarship provider clients about best practices in form data collection. 

Humanize the applicant experience

When creating forms, be sure to build in opportunities for applicants with any identity characteristics to represent themselves. For example, multiple-choice lists that include racial, ethnic, or gender identities might include numerous choices. The lists might also provide students with an option to offer their own descriptions such as, “Let me tell you.” 

Right-size applications and other forms

Grantmakers have made great strides in recent years in making the length and complexity of grant applications commensurate with potential grant awards. Scholarship providers haven’t embraced such a “right-sizing” approach en masse—yet!—but doing so could make students much more likely to complete your forms. 

Additionally, this may help increase access for certain marginalized groups, such as low-income students, first-generation students, non-traditional students, and students with disabilities. Applicants from these groups often face other barriers, whether that be reliable internet access, knowledgeable and trusted advisors, difficulty with technology, or something else. By streamlining your forms, you eliminate additional hurdles for such student groups. 

Assess and update data collected on forms

Each season, evaluate how well your forms are serving your organization, selection committee members, final decision makers, and students. Ensure you’re getting what you need while eliminating fields or other requirements that don’t prove useful. 

For example, you might be collecting comprehensive parent contact information, but realize you only occasionally use a parent phone number and never use any additional parent information. Why not remove those questions and make your application form quicker and easier to complete?

Be sensitive to the communities you aim to serve

While you might like to collect consistent data among all of your applicants and recipients, recognize that some applicant groups may not want to provide certain information for fear of repercussions. Immigrant students, those with learning or other disabilities, and those who have experienced trauma, for instance, may be hesitant to share specific data points. 

If you serve such student groups, you might add a question that allows them to explain if they cannot provide specific statistics or documentation. Be sure to emphasize this is OK to do. 

4. Evaluate Your Outcomes

One important reason to plan and implement with intentionality is you can later compare your desired outcomes to your actual results. 

DeKalb County Community Foundation (DCCF), for example, served a local high school where nearly half of the students identified as Black and Hispanic. Yet, just a quarter of the applications received from that school were from Black and Hispanic students, and an even smaller number of scholarship awards went to that school’s Black and Hispanic recipients. 

Armed with that data, the scholarship provider planned to expand its number of Black and Hispanic applicants and recipients, and set a specific goal of increasing the percentage of Black and Hispanic recipients to mirror the percentage of those groups’ students in the district. With these desired outcomes established, the provider was able to develop ways to gather and analyze data, and ultimately assess their success. 

Set annual goals

In the example above, the scholarship provider intended to transition from just 26 percent Black and Hispanic recipients to 50 percent Black and Hispanic recipients. Knowing such a lofty outcome was unlikely to happen overnight, they created a realistic, attainable timeframe for achieving their goal and identified annual targets to assess against in the interim. 

Create reports and dashboards to track your progress

In order to determine how you’re tracking against your goals, it helps to set up standardized reporting tools. 

In a scholarship management platform such as Foundant’s Scholarship Lifecycle Manager (SLM), users can create customized reports specific to their needs. To report on equity outcomes such as those described above, your report might aggregate applicants and recipients, then analyze them by specific demographic or identify indicators, such as race, ethnicity, gender, or first-generation status. That report could then be compared to your goal of, for example, increasing the percentage of applicants or recipients from specific communities, so you can see how well you’re performing against your targets. 

You might also create a simplified dashboard to record results over time including baseline data, interim data, and other data describing your ideal outcomes. 

Report your findings 

Goals, reports, and dashboards do not only help you assess your progress; they can also be used to inform key stakeholders. You may choose to share your results with internal stakeholders, such as colleagues, organizational leaders, volunteers, and donors. You might also choose to report your interim or final outcomes to your established partner programs, organizations, higher education institutions, or even to students to encourage them to consider themselves as strong candidates for your opportunities. 


We hope you found inspiration in these scholarship providers’ efforts. As you’re advancing the equity agenda for your own organization or program, consider incorporating their key takeaways into your work: 

  1. Start by outlining why you’re doing and what you hope to accomplish.
  2. Gather data on the students you want to serve; use it to refine your existing approach or to plan new projects or tasks.
  3. Ensure your forms collect data appropriate to your opportunities, needs, and applicant and recipient populations.
  4. Regularly evaluate how well you’re performing against your ideal outcomes.

Want to learn even more about this topic? Watch the entire Increasing Access for All Students through Data-Driven Practices webinar

This blog is an original work of the attributed author and is shared with permission via Foundant Technologies' website for informative purposes only as part of our educational content in the philanthropic sector. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this text belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect Foundant's stance on this topic. If you have questions or comments, please reach out to our team.

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.

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