Succeeding with College Success: The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis

August 14, 2018

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation

NCAN, with the support of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, is supporting 12 members as they begin or expand postsecondary success services for students. Using results from the Benchmarking Project, NCAN identified programs providing success services that have achieved positive postsecondary outcomes for students. In this blog series, we will profile some of these programs and hear from them about their approach, their advice, and lessons other member programs can learn. Today, we profile The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis.

In 2020, The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis (the Foundation) will celebrate 100 years of service to the mission of creating the educated community that a democracy requires.

The Foundation provides approximately $5 million annually in interest-free loans, grants, and paid internships to students with significant financial need. In addition to direct financial support, the Foundation offers advising on financial aid and admissions to 6,000 students and family members annually through individual appointments, group seminars, public workshops, and webinars. Beyond these direct services, the Foundation advocates at the institutional, state, and federal levels for and with students who have everything it takes to succeed in college but lack the financial means. Foundation students graduate at a rate of 84 percent, which exceeds both the national rate for all students (59%) and the alarmingly low rate for low-income students (14%).

The Foundation offers a plethora of services to students, families, and the community. The cornerstone of their work is last-dollar aid toward the total cost of education. These interest-free loans and grants must make up the difference between cost of education and the combined total of Expected Family Contribution, institutional scholarships and grants, and state and federal grants while not exceeding the Foundation’s maximum debt limit (currently $11,000 annually). Students receiving interest-free loans agree not to borrow elsewhere, making the Foundation the students’ only lender.

Students whose initial plans do not meet the Foundation’s standard (e.g., combined aid would not meet the full cost of education and/or excessive borrowing would be required) are offered the opportunity to work with an advisor to pursue an affordable and fundable plan. Approximately 40 percent of applicants denied for excessive borrowing or unmet need pursue this service.

The Foundation also links students to campus-based resources by compiling campus resource guides and packets for institutions enrolling a sizable number of its students. The Foundation distributes these digitally as soon as students are awarded. Additionally, it distributes a worksheet encouraging students to assemble contact information for campus resources. Foundation advisors visit campuses that enroll significant numbers of scholars and that are within a day’s drive. Staff members make these campus trips frequently in coordination with nonprofit partners from the St. Louis region who also have relationships with the students, forming a mobile “village” of visiting support. During the visits, staff urge students to use campus resources by presentations and appointments to introduce them to key support staff. Advisors work more intimately and in a more structured way with students who are being closely monitored for academic issues. Formal agreements are constructed in writing, articulating shared goals, timeframes, and communication expectations. 

The Foundation also provides “micro-grants” for one-time needs. Students encountering an unforeseen or one-time expense that threatens their continued enrollment may be awarded a grant from the executive director’s discretionary fund. Such grants may be used for expenses like emergency dental work, replacing clothing destroyed by flooding, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) renewal fees, travel home to attend a family funeral, or grocery gift cards. Typically, these expenses are less than $1,000 and not recurring or systemic. Students may also apply for one-time grants for educational or employment opportunities that carry associated expenses outside of their planned cost of education. Advising staff administer these micro-grants, which have included study trips, attendance or presentation at conferences, and purchase of academic supplies or tools.

Finally, the program director provides individual debt management counseling to graduates encountering repayment challenges with their interest-free loan to the Foundation. Repayments are deferred or reduced as circumstances warrant, with no additional cost to the student. In addition, students seek guidance with regard to their federal loans. The program director assists graduates and members of the public with information and application processes for income-based repayment, public service loan forgiveness, and other repayment options under the federal programs. 

I contacted Faith Sandler, The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis’ executive director, to get her thoughts about other aspects of the program. (She also provided the insightful, in-depth information above.) What follows below is a transcript lightly edited for length and clarity with her responses and insights.

When did you decide to add success services, how did they develop, and when in your program's history did that occur? 

Each of the services described above occurred at different times and developed based upon resources and advancing awareness. Linking to campus resources was earliest, recognizing that many students were unaware of what was available or uncomfortable asking for help.

Due diligence practices in student awards arose from the realization that too many students could trace their academic difficulties to root financial causes. Whether they had borrowed too much or the wrong kind of debt, were working too many hours, or got too far into their academic career with a mounting overdue balance, it was clear that a much more proactive partnership needed to exist on the financial front between the Foundation and the student. In fact, awarding funds without ensuring the student was both fully funded and fully aware was no favor at all to the student. The Foundation began the approach described above with assuring full funding approximately 10 years ago. We instituted restrictions on borrowing (amount and source) three years ago. 

Finally, newest in the toolkit of success services at the Foundation are the micro-grant programs. Frankly, the financial need of students and the shortage of family and campus resources to respond to these relatively minor expenses drove the creation of these programs. For a relatively small sum and the solving of a temporary and often somewhat simple problem, students can stay in school and succeed. The development of these programs was fostered by the appeal they have for donors. Generally, these grants carry compelling stories that illustrate the importance of the right help at the right time, given with no strings and great trust.

What are the challenges you experience (or experienced) in getting this work off the ground?

  • Acceptance of a “first, do no harm” approach: It took a number of years and an understanding of the data to see that a seemingly helpful action (making an interest-free loan or grant) could actually be harmful if the right due diligence and understanding was not in place. Seeing increasing numbers of students (locally and nationally) being admitted with insufficient aid who were unable to remain enrolled was instructive. Seeing the devastation of overdue balances was heartbreaking and included forced withdrawals from school, students working for years to repay a tuition bill from first semester of freshman year, and inability to transfer or access federal aid while academic transcripts are held for payment.
  • Committing to financial solutions first: While there are students who struggle academically and with intervening physical and mental health issues, the vast majority of the problems — and thus, the solutions — for Foundation students begin with financial resources. For years, the money and the behaviors of students and the outcomes were treated as separate matters. Now, the Foundation board and staff begin with financial solutions and supplement or refer for other needs.

Which aspects of what you do are replicated from other programs, and which aspects would be replicable for other programs? 

Among scholarship providers, the Foundation’s approach to due diligence and award packaging is unique and has not been replicated from other programs. The Foundation has shared its approach with others, and others have replicated at least some aspects of the approach. Because the Foundation is a funder, it has leverage in student decision-making that other organizations will not have.

In terms of measurement, what are the key indicators you track for your success services? Which of NCAN’s Success Common Measures do you track? What are the challenges around tracking them? What do you wish you could track that either you cannot procure or that presents a bad cost/benefit for obtaining?

The NCAN Success Measures that we track are:

  • Average college GPA
  • Year-to-year student persistence
  • Percent of students completing a degree within 150% of time
  • Percent of students awarded financial aid (ours is always 100%)
  • Amount of financial aid awarded (total and per student)
  • First-Generation
  • Pell Grant-Eligible
  • Race
  • Gender

Challenges:

  • Race and gender have become more difficult to categorize and measure. That makes consistent reporting from year to year either difficult or potentially offensive.
  • Transcripts are inconsistently formatted and are never delivered as usable data. We have to get official transcripts, read them, and then enter data manually into our systems. That makes academic progress difficult to capture and timely academic data that could be used to identify problems before a student gets in trouble almost impossible.
  • Converting and interpreting the student aid report (SAR) is also harder than it should be because it arrives as a PDF rather than as usable data.

What we wish we could track: 

  • High school-level academic performance data about students who come to us for financial support. Specifically, it would be great if we could do a better job at identifying risk factors for success and use that information in providing more targeted services to specific students. 
  • Real-time student loan debt data. While level of debt is not a success indicator, it can be a huge factor in persistence (and thus, success). Unfortunately, what’s reported on the SAR is for the previous year, which makes it hard to identify bad borrowing in time to do much about it. We could be better informed and able to intervene sooner if we were able to get debt load information for students directly from the National Student Loan Data Systems (NSLDS).

[Ed. Note: This key performance indicator (KPI) dashboard from the Foundation is a wonderful example of data in a dashboard telling a story. It emphasizes three important prongs for the foundation: mission focus, direct financial support to students, and student success. With just these five metrics and a little narrative, this organization has a product that shows the public, stakeholders, funders, and others what they do and how they do it.]

What are some of the key resources or supports you think the field needs to expand and improve the success services provided to students? i.e., What can NCAN do at a large scale in terms of professional development and training?

Large-scale or high-level endeavors to boost success programming:

  • Maintain relationship to “access” – providing access without setting up for success is cruel. In admitting, awarding, and opening doors, help members understand the damage that can be done if success is not also programmed.
  • Continue to strengthen advocacy efforts and the networks supporting them, with a sharp focus on low-income students and issues that adversely affect them.

How do you balance the demand to provide more access support with the desire to provide more success support? How does that cause organizational shifts in, for example, securing funding, board commitment, and staff training?

We do not see these as separate or distinct but as essentially related (if sequential in students' lives). Funding follows, but it takes time and patience for donors to understand the dynamics. For donors and board members, the “feel-good” success stories have to come long after the presentation of the big check for the first year of funding. We have to stop the single story narrative of access as just raising awareness or even opening the door. 

How do you cooperate with colleges in supporting students?

The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis disburses award funds directly to students and not to schools. The primary cooperative relationship the Foundation seeks is with the students and the community. Due to award displacement at many institutions, the Foundation does not cooperate with colleges at the individual student level unless the student requests and authorizes such cooperation. At some schools where policy, practice, and approach to students align with the Foundation’s, cooperation exists in joint programming (both in St. Louis and on campus). There are also several campuses where mutual agreements exist to share early warning signals when students are experiencing academic difficulty, and there is at least one campus where the institution matches the Foundation’s support with institutional scholarships.

How do you provide services to students who attend schools far away from your program’s location? What advice do you have for other programs in serving their own students at a distance?

There are numerous technology solutions to this challenge including text messaging platforms, video instruction, periodic emails tightly focused on student needs, and social media updates and reminders. Campus visits once each semester are helpful, and scheduled check-ins with students during winter break or summer in St. Louis are all useful tools.

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Thank you to Faith for her time and responses and to the foundation for their NCAN membership. We will return soon with additional profiles of programs succeeding with college success.





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