Institutional scholarship programs have become ubiquitous within higher ed, often representing one of the largest lines in a college’s annual budget. Following this advice will help institutions optimize these significant financial commitments.
1. Use scholarships as a yield tool—not to generate top-of-funnel prospects
I remember the sales pitch of a discount electronics dealer from my childhood: “We sell things cheap.” No opening statements about the value these items could bring to the consumer’s life, just that whatever was available was, well, cheap. Similarly, a past consulting client once touted its “scholarship grid” and the admission office’s opening pitch was “We have scholarship dollars for you!” As compelling as that might sound to a student, using scholarships to aggressively encourage inquiries and applications can attract students who will consider your institution for the wrong reasons, often resulting in low yield and/or retention.
Certainly, scholarship, financial aid, and financing information should be very visible and readily available from the first time a prospective student visits your website. It should continue to be part of the conversation that leads to that student’s application and enrollment deposit. Then, once it is clear that the institution’s value proposition matches with the student’s interests and aspirations, scholarships should be used as part of the overall financial aid package to help make this experience affordable for the student.
2. Make certain that scholarship programs match the institution’s current reality and near-term plans
A past consulting client whose student body had an average SAT (CR/M) around 1000 and high school GPA of 2.5 had earlier decided to provide full-tuition scholarships to candidates with SATs of 1400+ and GPAs of 3.5+. Initially attracted by the free-tuition opportunity, the majority of these students soon left the college feeling unchallenged academically. They took their free credits and transferred out. While the institution sought to increase the academic quality of its students with scholarships, it clearly had created a program well outside its current reality, resulting in no tuition revenue and a revolving door for these bright students.
3. Whenever possible, attach scholarships to a value-added experience
Related to the previous situation, institutions should strive to provide their scholarship recipients with an experience that is connected to the scholarship offer, one that enhances the student’s education. For high-achieving students, it could be an honors program. For theater scholars, the opportunity to meet a guest speaker coming to campus. For those interested in government, a local internship.
4. Connect scholarship students with scholarship benefactors
Although those individuals who donate money to support scholarships cannot play any role in the selection of candidates for these awards, it has been my experience that these people greatly enjoy interacting with the students whose education they are helping to underwrite. This can take the shape of a personal thank-you note, a campus meeting, or a college event that celebrates these benefactors and their students. These experiences humanize the financial support students receive, provide students with networking opportunities, and remind them of the need for they, themselves, to “pay it forward” when they are in the position to do so.
Significant institutional scholarship expenditures are here to stay for the foreseeable future. The key is to make certain these important resources are being used optimally.