What are scholarships good for?

Early this October, as I was sitting in on a meeting of College Possible coaches, the program coordinator specializing in scholarships brought up this amazing stat: When their students got some sort of scholarship, 93% graduated college within six years. When there was no scholarship, only 45% graduated in six years. This is based on College Possible Minnesota's 2008 cohort, meaning their participating students who graduated high school in 2008 and have been tracked since then. So even with all the coaching and support that all College Possible students receive, getting a scholarship more than doubles their odds of graduating. This doesn't just mean "full ride" scholarships that pay for all of college, but any type of scholarship that helps make college cheaper. 

Statistics rarely have stories or explanations, so it's up to us to brainstorm some reasons why getting even a small scholarship can increase your success so dramatically.

Of course there's the obvious reason: scholarships make school more affordable, and you're therefore able to stay and finish. This is true for most people, though there are certainly people for whom a few extra thousand dollars--or even a full ride--wouldn't make a difference in whether or not they could afford college. But this is definitely true for people who end up taking more than four years to finish college: people who study six years in college end up spending, on average, 40% more than people who finish in four years. And it's especially true for people who rely on financial aid for most or all of their time in college, including housing and food costs.

A little bit of money can be the big difference between graduating and not graduating. A program at Georgia State University finds and provides emergency money to students about to be dropped from the school due to account balances--money they owe to the school. They've got the number of students dropped from around 1,000 per semester down to 300-400. The average grant is $900, meaning less than a thousand dollars is the factor that allows or prohibits these students from staying in school. So it makes complete sense that someone getting extra funding, even a little bit, is a lot more likely to graduate.

Scholarships, and the promise of future scholarships, can also be a great way to help you enforce self-discipline. Say, for example, that you have a scholarship worth $5,000 every semester, but you have to maintain at least a 3.0 GPA to keep the scholarship. And imagine you have a big test you don't really want to study for. You can tell yourself "if I don't study, then I might not do well on the test." But the consequences are vague and not very convincing. Now imagine yourself saying "if I don't study, then I might not pass the class and have to retake it." That's a stronger argument. But even stronger? "If I don't study, then I might lose my scholarship and not be able to finish college." That's motivating. Even if you don't need the scholarship to stay in school, just having a dollar amount can help you stay focused on your studies. When tempted to skip the study session and go to a party instead, just ask yourself: "Am I willing to risk $5,000 to go to this party? Is it worth it?" No. No party is worth it.

Scholarships are great at building confidence. So much of college admissions--and then college itself--fosters a sense of self-doubt. We constantly ask ourselves if we're worthy. Earning a scholarship is a great way to work against that doubt. Are you a good student? Will you do well in college? Yes! How do you know? Because strangers gave decided to pay you to do it. Man, that feels good. And it can encourage you to keep pressing forward and dong what you need to do to graduate, even when you aren't feeling up to it. 

Because scholarships can do more than simply meet financial requirements, you shouldn't feel guilty taking a scholarship you don't think you need. Don't lie about your finances, obviously, or engage in fraud. But let the people providing the scholarships decide how much they want to make financial need a part of their application. That's not your job. And if you think you qualify for a scholarship, apply. Even if you can afford college without the scholarship, the scholarship still means a lot to you. It might make you twice as likely to graduate.

This is the third, and last, post about my visit to College Possible in Minnesota. The two previous posts are "Thinking about your special circumstances" and "Getting the support you need in college."

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