Flexibility and innovation in college completion: How it works

Reflecting on 10 years of the Dell Scholars Program, my colleagues and I know there are two keys to supporting the students as they pursue college degrees:  flexibility and innovation.

Even in the foundation’s most disciplined executions – such as our program that strategically leverages data and hands-on experiences – unexpected things happen and we’re forced to change course. As we’ve provided ongoing support to address all of the emotional, lifestyle, and financial challenges that may prevent our scholars from college completion, we’ve had to remain flexible and nimble to meet the ever-evolving needs of each individual Dell Scholar. Often that flexibility has allowed for unexpected positive outcomes that exceeded our expectations.

Flexibility also enables innovation. While the Dell Scholars Program and our approach to supporting students has been considered breakthrough since our beginning in 2004, we’ve continually applied new ideas to better serve Dell Scholars and assist college readiness programs and other scholarship providers do the same.

These two keys to our program allow us to execute our core principles: 1) Know each individual Dell Scholar; 2) Adjust our strategies to the needs of each student; and 3) Measure our effectiveness.  Since the program’s inception some core elements remain consistent while others have transformed, yet all are grounded in our ability to measure how effective we are in reaching our goals.

In a series of posts, I will examine the ways flexibility and innovation allow us to  evaluate risk, prioritize early interventions, use a holistic set of indicators on an ongoing basis to offer the right kind of help at the right point in time, work efficiently, track our progress and support scholars through graduation.

We believe that open minds and big, new ideas make us better. As do improvements and adjustments to programs that have been helping students graduate from college for more than 10 years.

Flexibility: Open minds and new ideas

Sometimes it’s better to adjust the way you utilize resources rather than simply throwing more at the problem. Each Dell Scholar has received a $20,000 scholarship award.  The total award has remained consistent, even as college costs have risen and the average debt at graduation has ballooned to an average of nearly $30,000  over the last 10 years.  For our Dell Scholars, the average debt at graduation has risen at a much slower pace, averaging $7,500, with several students graduating with little or no debt.

Unlike other scholarship providers, our scholars have much more flexibility to apply the funds and better leverage them in conjunction with the other financial aid our scholars receive.

Helping students maximize the scholarship award can be a management-intensive process, so we’ve built a system that allows us to oversee the process efficiently for nearly 1600 Dell Scholars at over 600 institutions on a yearly basis.

We need to be aware of and document factors such as other sources of aid a scholar is receiving in order to determine the best use of our funds.  This includes understanding any restrictions placed on their other financial aid.  For instance, if a student receives another scholarship that only covers tuition and fees, we can then advise the student to use their Dell Scholars funds to pay for other expenses.   Sometimes a student will receive more than one scholarship but they are all restricted to cover a specific expense such as tuition.  In this case, the student must choose a scholarship and potentially lose the other award.

Challenges commonly arise with award displacement—a hot topic across the scholarship provider field and several of my colleagues participated in the white paper released by the National Scholarship Providers Association last year.  In simplest terms, award displacement occurs when students who receive “need based” aid are over-awarded because they qualify for more in financial aid than their Cost of Attendance (COA).  In theory, this practice makes sense but there are nuances that, based on the makeup of the students aid package, can have a negative effect.  The most common student impact is a reduction in institutional grants rather than using the outside scholarship to replace the loans offered in the award package.  In this scenario there is no net benefit for the student to have diligently applied to multiple scholarships, given he or she still ended up with student loans because of the university’s policy.

Putting ideas into action

Our approach regarding award displacement is to first appeal to the university on behalf of the Dell Scholar to allow our funds to replace the loans.  If policy doesn’t allow that utilization, we then allow the scholar to defer our award for that academic year and retain the loans.  Our award can then be used to repay the student loans at graduation up to the remaining balance.  This approach has been a key strategy in helping our scholars keep debt low at graduation without increasing our scholarship award.

The flexibility of our award also expands to use for summer school, when financial aid such as the Pell grant is not available, to study abroad programs to internship stipends.   This flexibility requires that we work harder to manage the funds throughout the academic year while it’s easier to simply send one check at the start of the school year.  For the benefit of our Dell Scholars, it is worth the extra effort and flexibility required.

We believe that open minds and big, new ideas make us better.  As do improvements and adjustments to programs that have been helping students graduate from college for more than 10 years.