How to Make Scholarships Effective for the 21st Century

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Roughly one-third of college students are the first in their families to pursue degrees, and a quarter is both first-generation and low-income. This combination is often quite challenging. Only 11% of low-income, first-generation students earn a college degree within six years.

With the critical role post-secondary education plays in the lives of individuals and for our society and our economy, we cannot afford these dismal outcomes. That’s why states across the country are actively working to close this achievement gap.

Setting the Stage for Improved Outcomes

For example, consider the State of Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars Program. It provides as many as four years of paid tuition to low-income high school graduates if they attend an eligible college in Indiana.

In its 25-year history, more than 70,000 students have benefitted from the program’s scholarships, and approximately 110,000 middle school, high school, and college students are currently enrolled in it — a testament to the increasing importance and length of the procession from elementary student to college graduate.

This far-reaching program has helped to increase college access for tens of thousands of first-generation students, many of whom are from low-income and minority families. However, while providing access is a critical part of the solution, many of these students still struggle to complete their degrees (or fail to graduate altogether).

While the 21st Century Scholars 2014 State Scorecard showed scholar success rates were above those of their low-income peers, they are still 20-25% below the average of the general population — a gap the creators of the program want to close.

Fostering Scholarship in the 21st Century

When low-income and first-generation students earn degrees, it improves their employment prospects, alters the trajectory for their families, and benefits the state by boosting economic potential. That’s why program stakeholders are governed by a shared objective of closing the completion gap by filling it with the support students need for success.

Knowing money wasn’t the primary issue — because scholars already receive a tuition-free education — program leaders decided to focus on providing better developmental support. To that end, the 21st Century Scholars Coaching Initiative was set up to complement the organization’s scholarship program.

The program’s professional coaches work with students to address the many life issues outside of class that prevent them from making it to the finish line. The underlying philosophy is to improve outcomes by building on strengths that students already possess to unlock their potential.

How Coaching Helps Students

Here are three ways coaches help 21st Century Scholars:

1. Balance competing demands. Students from low-income backgrounds often struggle to balance work and family obligations with the demands of their college course loads. Coaches help these students prepare for success by realistically examining their competing commitments and devising smart ways to prioritize and tackle them. If expectations are realistic, student motivation increases to carry on through inevitable setbacks.

2. Cultivate a success mindset. In addition to competing demands on their time, first-generation students often have trouble finding their place in the college environment and may doubt their ability to succeed. Coaches help students develop a sense of belonging by normalizing the college experience and reassuring them that they’re “college-ready.” For many of these students, their coaches are the first to truly see them for who they are and what they can accomplish, as well as believe in their abilities to overcome any obstacles.

3. Build skills for the workforce and lifelong success. Just as education is a longitudinal process, so is a career path. One workshop on the penultimate day of a course isn’t going to make students career-ready. Instead, coaches discuss career plans with students throughout their time at school to ensure they build the skills needed to succeed in a competitive job market. It’s an ongoing process, and colleges and universities that focus on helping students succeed after graduation will see those efforts pay off with higher persistence and completion rates.

A Brighter Future on the Horizon

While the coaches in Indiana currently work with scholars only during their first year of study, they’ve already made a significant impact. At the end of its first year of implementation, the 21st Century Scholars Coaching Initiative saw retention rates of students moving into their second year increase by roughly 15% over historical figures.

The expansion of the program to two additional Indiana universities at the start of the current academic year is evidence of its continuing success. Other states, including Ohio and Minnesota, are looking at the program as a model to create and implement their own coaching initiatives.

Indiana has served as a profoundly positive role model. By expanding its 21st Century Scholars Coaching Initiative, it will greatly serve the future of its citizens and, eventually — as more states introduce similar programs — the future of our country.

The benefits are clear: More college graduates means a better prepared workforce and greater opportunity, not only for the graduates, but also for their families, communities, and the states in which they live. The potential return on investment is immense.

About the Author: Pete Wheelan, CEO of InsideTrack, has dedicated his career to leading mission-driven, high-growth companies focused on helping individuals live up to their full potential. Before joining InsideTrack, he served as chief operating officer and chief revenue officer at Blurb, a groundbreaking leader in unleashing creative expression through self-published books.