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A graphic with the word "scholarship" in a cloud-shaped bubble, against the background of a desk, with a keyboard and school supplies visible in the background.

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Is your administration of scholarships increasing educational access for students or weeding out the ones you mean to help?

Reduced government support and rising educational costs mean that universities rely more on federal aid and philanthropic donors to keep their doors open for aspiring students. Scholarships improve students’ access to higher education, but there are key steps that institutions can take to ensure that their choices in scholarship design and implementation open doors, and do not unintentionally close them.

Clarify the Funding Goal

There is often a disconnect between the scholarship purpose and the selection criteria and award process. Is the goal to give money to students in need? To recognize students’ exemplary accomplishments? To encourage high-achieving students to excel further, faster?

For each goal, the scholarship criteria and application and award process should vary. If the goal, for example, is to give away as much money as possible to students in need, then the award criteria and application process might be less complicated. If the goal is to recognize high-achieving students and advance their scholarship, then the funding criteria and award process might be more involved, requiring assessment of a more detailed application. We recommend asking yourself if the amount of work that student applicants and scholarship committee members do is commensurate with how much money you want to distribute, to whom, and toward what objective.

Institutions must also assess if the scholarship amount and award distribution schedule (e.g., one-time award, installments given over multiple years) match the scholarship goal, students’ needs, and the institution’s priorities. If an institution wants to improve student recruitment and decrease first-year attrition, then distributing recruitment scholarships over two years, rather than in one lump sum at the beginning of a student’s first year, may help recruit top students and encourage their persistence.

Optimize Your Fund Types

Federal funds have specific limitations about which students may receive funding that many private gift funds do not. Optimize your fund types to advance institutional and student goals. Private gift funds, unless specified otherwise, are available to domestic, international, DACA-mented, and undocumented students. If your goal is to improve access for student groups that do not qualify for government funds, or for whom you are not permitted to designate specific funding streams, then maximize the funds that can be directed to those groups.

Refine Recommendation Letters

Recommendation letters are an opportunity to learn more about the student applicant and their qualifications. They may also introduce considerable bias. Referees may write long or short letters and may or may not address the award selection criteria. Providing referees with clear instructions, award selection criteria, definitions and application scoring rubrics can help reduce referee bias. Referee instructions, for example, might include a word/page limit for the letter and identify what information you want referees to address. Referee letters can be standardized further by providing separate sections for referees to write about each award selection criterion, helping to ensure that every student applicant’s referee speaks to the same information. Too often what a referee chooses to write about the student and at what length is more about the referee’s time, energy and biases than about the student’s qualifications for the scholarship

Get the Word Out

Despite wonderful websites and carefully constructed emails, many students may not believe that they qualify for funding or that they have a chance at being selected. Others may feel intimidated by the process or the burden of asking for recommendation letters. Getting the word out in multiple ways can encourage students to apply. In addition to emails and website postings, large and smaller information sessions offered in spaces that students frequent (e.g., classes, residence halls, lobbies of college buildings) will make it easier for students to access in-person information, ask specific questions and learn from others’ questions. Information sessions, a named point of contact, drop-in or by-appointment office hours, etc., may also allow you to share lesser-known tips and help students assemble clear, competitive applications that are easier for selection committee members to evaluate.

Depending on your scholarship purpose, students may also be encouraged to apply when you advertise what percentage of applicants are funded (if it’s a fairly large number) or how many students are funded on their first attempt, second attempt, etc. They may also be encouraged to apply if you advertise previous student awardees and how they used the scholarship funds. This can provide role models for students who are hesitant to apply and spark ideas about what they may request funding for.

Match Evaluation Criteria to Student Needs and Institutional Priorities

Evaluation criteria that are poorly identified and worded may increase rater bias and drift from intended selection criteria. The following considerations can help direct funding to the students you want and align awards with institutional goals for student success.

  • Write evaluation criteria that are well-defined and measurable.
  • Create rating scales/response options that fit the evaluation criteria.
  • Solicit on the application the information necessary to evaluate students on each criterion.
  • Be able to complete for each evaluation criterion this statement: “This criterion is distinct and important because …”
  • If relevant to the funding goal, explicitly request and evaluate information about nonacademic skills, experiences, and knowledge.

Remember that transparency yields results. While parts of the evaluation process should remain confidential, a transparent process and definition of excellence holds university employees accountable to students. Showcasing rubrics, for example, not only helps reviewers minimize bias, but can strengthen the focus and clarity of the application form and, ultimately, the student’s application.

Attend to Deadlines and Funding Distribution

More than one scholarship deadline helps increase access to money throughout the calendar year for students who matriculate at different times, require funding at different times, and advance toward academic and research goals across the year. Multiple application deadlines also allow students to learn from their first application experience, make revisions and reapply quickly. You may also find that attrition is very high for students at a certain point during the academic year. As such, you may choose to distribute more money toward students at specific times or distribute funds in timed installments that target high-risk attrition time points.

Fit Matters

Remember that a scholarship cannot serve as a solution to a bad fit. The purpose of improving scholarships’ accessibility should not be to raise diversity numbers or an institution’s reputation. This is the difference between investment in and monetization of students. Instead, a students-first approach means serving students with an awareness of what the institution can reasonably provide for them while working to improve their experience, access and learning environment. Scholarships in this sense serve as an enhancement rather than a remedy—to increase educational access and excellence rather than weed students out.

Krista Chronister is vice provost for graduate studies at the University of Oregon. tia north is the director of diversity and inclusion in the Division of Graduate Studies at the University of Oregon.

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