The coronavirus pandemic’s tumultuous reach continues to upend higher education. This podcast looks at the disruption that has happened in the areas of scholarship, financial aid and fundraising.

The podcast’s guests are Keith Brown and Alania Cater. Brown is the assistant director for special awards part in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Office of Student Financial Aid. He manages and maintains the UW-Madison scholarship management system.  Cater is the director of product management at Blackbaud.

Supporting Students in a Crisis

COVID has changed the scholarship process in higher education. The biggest change has been a shift to supporting emergency funding or grants. This includes CARE grants, external funding that the university is helping to raise that is earmarked to support students during this time, or departmental funds that are being shifted around to help fund students.

Additionally, institutions are having to identify how to support students virtually. Universities are no longer able in many instances to advise students about the scholarship process in person or to hold outreach events about campus scholarships. Institutions are having to find new ways to adjust, and many are relying on Zoom and Microsoft Teams for online meetings.

Revising Scholarship Processes

The process of awarding scholarships also has moved into the virtual realm with reviewers, applicants and administrators. Some larger scholarships that require in-person interviews have moved these conversations to a virtual setting. Many institutions and applicants have had primarily positive feedback on this new process, leading many to believe that the virtual interviews may be here to stay.

One interesting byproduct of the online transition is that administrators are now spending more time with reviewers than in the past, but this includes their doing more hand-holding, as well as logging into systems and confirming that the work can be done online. While this seems simple, it can be complicated.

Additionally, the scholarship review process is being affected in some cases because of multiple people are working from home. Reviewers are dealing with conflicting priorities (such as children at home or caregiving) while some applicants are having difficulty getting everything in on time due to conflicts. This has required institutions to extend deadlines, especially during the spring semester when the pandemic first hit. This extension allowed the institutions to compensate for what was happening in the world, and created enough time to process and review applications while the university was focused on moving students off campus and moving all classes online.

Universities like to have clean processes with breaks between the close of a cycle and the beginning of another one. However, the pandemic has made that impossible. Institutions have had to become flexible in working with incoming students. Admission deadlines had to be pushed back. Students had to weigh the decision of whether to come to campus in the fall or defer enrollment for a year. That led to a lot of shuffling in the scholarship realm. This made Fall 2020 an unprecedented time for many university admissions offices and for the awarding of scholarships.

Another challenge was students’ access to technology at home. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Office of Financial Aid tried to meet students where they are. This involved scheduling a lot of virtual meetings and fielding a lot of calls through the online phone service. The number of emails also have increased significantly. The campus also tried to be flexible to allow in-person visits when safely possible.  

Making Changes

Blackbaud has seen an increase in demand for online scholarship application processes. While many institutions did not had this new process ready when the coronavirus struck, administrators and staff now understand that the scholarship application process needs to be online so more institutions are transitioning away from a reliance on paper applications. Institutions now believe this is a change that needed to occur and the pandemic offered the impetus.

As a silver lining, institutions who have moved their processes online also have identified money that was going unawarded. Previously, many departments working with scholarships were having difficulty tracking all of the various donor wishes, all of the funds and where they are being allocated and to whom, and which funds were not being used. With the increasing cost of education as well as the current environment caused by the pandemic, it’s a shame not to utilize all available scholarships and financial aid.

Taking CARES

Many institutions received a large influx of funds from the CARES Act, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison worked as quickly as it could across campus to use these funds. Additionally, while the CARES funding was coming down the pipeline, UW-M worked with its foundation to raise emergency funds and scholarship funds for students. The institution tried not to wait and instead focused on getting those funds out as quickly as possible. By July, UW-M had awarded close to $10 million.

However, their efforts didn’t stop there. The university also tried to award funding to students who were not eligible for CARES Act funding. To do this involved shuffling funding across campus to support international students and undocumented students who were caught up in the crisis. Knowing that both the regulations and policies are changing, institutional leaders tried to not let these changes stop the decision-making process and tried to remain agile in supporting students.

Flexibility also is being seen as foundations are going back to donors to discuss revising awarding requirements. A number of donors previously have stipulated that their scholarship funds could only support certain types of recipients, but fundraising officials are now working with donors to make those stipulations more flexible to deal with issues impacting students and families due to COVID-19, including altering education requirements for merit-based scholarships and SAT requirements.

While these conversations allow the university to gain more flexibility in using these funds, they also offer an opportunity to touch base with donors. This helps institutions continue to foster these important relationships.

Changing How Scholarships Are Awarded

The change in the use of SAT/ACT scores is changing institutional scholarship evaluation processes. This year, UW-M is making the scores optional and students must self-report these scores.

This also is having an impact on how the institution is using Blackbaud to bring consistency around scholarship processes across campus. This will result in greater reliance on admissions data, information on admissions applications and integration of other systems to look at benchmarks. Ultimately, this effort will lead to a more holistic review instead of a strong reliance on test scores.

This change also sends a signal to high school students that they need to apply themselves throughout their academic career instead of relying on getting a high SAT score. In fact, studies have found that a high SAT score is not a predictor of success in college. There are better indicators, such as a higher GPA in high school or a resume that shows work outside of school that highlights fortitude and responsibility.

Next Generation of Scholarships and Donations

The biggest change is the approach to fundraising. Whereas most of the funds being awarded are endowed scholarships, there may be a move to creating more scholarships that are need-based and focused on supporting students who are in crisis. In the future, scholarships also may be more general in regards to award criteria. State schools also are anxiously watching for the budgetary guidance in relation to state budgets and how it will change in the upcoming academic year.

While most fundraising continues to come from major donors (and should continue going forward), there is a shift to more peer-to-peer fundraising, more outreach fundraising and more engagement across a broader constituent base. In addition, there are efforts to engage more donors at a lower donation amount. This is important in fundraising in relation to emergency fundraising and students in need; this differs from endowed funds and annual campaigns.

Moving into the spring term, agility is going to be key to deal with issues created by the pandemic as well as the changing environment that relies on technology.

Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders

Brown suggested three takeaways for higher education leaders:

  • Create clear and consistent messaging at the micro-level (the scholarship office) and from the campus. It’s important to provide clear guidance to students and their families.
  • Meet students where they are. This includes providing support that they can access on their phones and other types of technology.
  • Money is needed to support students who are caught in crisis because of the pandemic as well as student employees. Fundraising efforts and financial aid/scholarship work are critical.

Cater offered the following points:

  • University presidents should listen to and talk to the students.
  • Technology investment is going to be key for future success. It’s important to have a connected campus.
  • Money to make these upgrades is critical.

Recommendations for Students

Brown suggested two takeaways for students:

  • Ask for help from the financial and student support perspective. Students have to stay informed on a lot of changing information; much of that could be falling through the cracks so it’s important to ask for help proactively.
  • Persistence is key. It’s a challenging year emotionally and financially, as well as academically.

Cater added the following points:

  • There is a lot more money that is available than most students think. Don’t forget to ask for help.
  • When overwhelmed, seek assistance. If a student needs to drop their course load to deal with the pandemic-related issues but is afraid that it will affect the financial aid package, it’s important to ask for guidance and support. Institutions are being flexible.

Bullet Points

  • The scholarship process in higher education is shifting to supporting emergency funding or grants. This includes CARE grants, external funding that is earmarked to support students during this time, or departmental funds that are being shifted around to help fund students.
  • Institutions are moving the scholarship review and selection processes. This is helping increase efficiencies and also allowing institutions to identify pots of money that have not been being awarded.
  • The pandemic has created numerous opportunities, including the influx of CARES Act funds. In addition, institutions are raising more funds and also having conversations with donors about revising criteria for selection to allow scholarships to be used for students who are in crisis.
  • Many institutions are making SAT/ACT scores optional. This will result in greater reliance on admissions data, information on admissions applications and integration of other systems to look at benchmarks. It’s also sending a message to the applicant that it’s more important to have a strong high school GPA or a stellar resume that showcases work responsibilities.
  • While most funding is coming from major donors, other philanthropic trends are emerging, including a shift to peer-to-peer fundraising, outreach fundraising and engagement across a broader constituent base. In addition, institutions are increasingly trying to engage more donors at a lower donation amount.

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Keywords: #Education #University #HigherEducation #Fundraising