Benchmarking Report Member Profile: Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis

December 17, 2014

Last week, NCAN released Closing the Graduation Gap: 2014 National College Access and Success Benchmarking Report, the first of an annual series. In this report, NCAN, working with the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, examines the outcomes of students served by NCAN members. Additionally, the report profiles five NCAN members who submitted data for the Benchmarking Project. This week, NCAN’s blog will highlight these five members even further through a more in-depth look. Today we examine The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis.

The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis (SFSTL) is one of the longest tenured college access programs in the nation. Founded in 1920 to provide interest-free, no-fee loans to students to attend higher education, SFSTL has grown substantially, and in 2013 the organization provided nearly $4 million in loans to over 560 students. Beyond the significant financial investment in students, SFSTL is both a city-wide and regional pillar of a college access resource.

The loans that are the cornerstone of SFSTL’s work are made to students on the basis of their academic potential (not necessarily academic merit), character, financial need, and the foundation’s ability to actually fill the gap in the student’s institution-awarded financial aid package. Funds are not approved for any student “so significantly gapped that we can’t fill it or anyone who is borrowing more than our interest-free loan and the subsidized Stafford,” according to Faith Sandler, SFSTL’s Executive Director.

Notably, there are many students receiving direct financial support from SFSTL who require nothing more than the last-dollar scholarship they are provided. However, in every cohort, program staff look at a set of risk indicators and identify 20-40 students who will receive more frequent contacts from advisors. Additionally, all first-time recipients of a scholarship receive campus-specific check-ins from advisors during their first few weeks regardless of where they rank in their class.

How does a program like SFSTL, which has been around since long before being data-driven was a prevalent aspiration in education, use data? “I would not categorize the SFSTL as data-driven, meaning that I don’t think we look at data first and then make decisions…We’re data mature, but some other newer organizations who were born in the last five years and started with data have a different model,” says Rob Foley, SFSTL’s IT Director. Sandler says she would partially agree but wants to emphasize that, “In terms of location of the program and services, our environmental and contextual data haven’t changed enough in the St. Louis region in the past 10-20 years. So if you don’t see us adapt our interventions it’s because there isn’t anything to change. We still have underserved and low-income populations in the same areas.”

The SFSTL staff evaluates program outcomes in a few ways. First, they have begun to align the program with NCAN’s Common Measures “not only for aligning [their] work to…access and success metrics…but also defining for ourselves what post-success metrics look like.” Although they have not started to collect metrics on graduates’ community involvement, economic status, level of health, etc., the foundation would like to move from metrics focusing on loan repayment rates to broader outcomes about the foundation’s community impact. Notably, however, there may be some intermediate metrics to bridge the shorter- and longer-term aspirations. For example, degree satisfaction, graduates’ perceptions of their quality of life, and their levels of debt going into adulthood are being discussed at the foundation as potential data points to collect.

In addition to providing direct financial support, SFSTL also informs and advises the public through broad campaigns and small-group and individual advising and engages in collective impact efforts through St. Louis Graduates. This collective impact work is important as it aligns community partners on the college access/success continuum throughout the city. As a well-established program, SFSTL has a lot to teach other organizations about providing support services and readiness activities. Working with programs like Big Brothers, Big Sisters and three other partner organizations, SFSTL recently started a program to help 8th graders begin 529 savings accounts. A pipeline and relationship have been established where “we help their students get ready to be our applicants and more importantly to be successful in choosing and attending an IHE,” says Sandler.

SFSTL sees its provision of technical assistance for other programs as a part of its broader mission. “For an organization like ours, having the IT and data staff…is as much about serving the whole community as the organization,” says Faith Sandler. “If you think of our role in this community, it’s not just about running our program….We have a commitment that’s building to a greater community purpose. That’s both a challenge and an opportunity for staff.”

Clearly, SFSTL must be doing something right since they have been around nearly 95 years. To what do they attribute their success? First, they cite financial stability (“we have a distinct advantage over many others in that we have what you would consider sources of earned income, and we’re not grant-dependent or alumni annual contribution dependent”). Next, brand loyalty/recognition/ integrity in St. Louis is helpful because the foundation is “recognized as far and above anyone else the leader in our region for the type of work that we do. Our organization is called upon constantly to go out in the community and share what we know about financial aid and college knowledge.” Finally, like many NCAN organizations, everyone associated with SFSTL is passionate about the organization’s mission. From “volunteers to recipients to staff and board members, everyone is so passionate about the mission…We make students a priority and put them first.”

Moving forward, SFSTL would like to move into more intensive advocacy work, but they also are looking for new ways to serve students. Although the organization’s first century(!) of existence has formed SFSTL into a pillar of providing service to the St. Louis community, they continue to look for new ways to help students get to college.

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