Designing Scholarships for Maximum Impact

All scholarships help the students who receive them — but some are more effective than others. When scholarships include certain key features, students are more likely to complete their degrees or certificates faster and with fewer barriers, according to “Bringing the Dream Within Reach,” a new report from the Oregon Community Foundation.

Last year, OCF awarded 3,427 scholarships worth $11.6 million to a diverse pool of Oregon students pursuing certificates, two-year degrees, and four-year degrees — making it one of the largest scholarship programs of its kind in the nation. Drawing on published studies and interviews with OCF scholarship recipients, OCF researchers concluded that scholarships are most effective when they are:

  • Simple — with a straightforward, streamlined application process
  • Sizeable — multi-year awards of least $1,000 or more for maximum impact
  • Flexible — so students can cover non-tuition expenses that help them stay in school
  • Targeted — to students with the highest financial need and least access to higher education

These attributes make scholarships more effective because they reflect the reality of students’ lives today. Many students don’t fit the mold of a “typical” student who graduates from high school at age 18, enrolls in college, attends classes full-time, and earns a degree four years later, says Becky Seel, an OCF research and learning officer who wrote the report.

“Many people are piecing higher education together — it might be later in life or part-time; it could be community college, or a credential from a trade program. There are so many different pathways, but we still have this very traditional idea of what college looks like,” Seel says. “The more that we can open that up, the more students will find success.”

Larger scholarships, less debt

A scholarship recipient from Portland. Despite different paths, many students share the struggle to afford higher education. One in three students at Oregon public colleges and universities take out federal loans (see full report for sources and citations).

By the time they complete their degrees, Oregon undergraduates owe between $26,000 and $37,000, on average, depending on whether their loans are public or private. In interviews, OCF scholarship recipients including Brian S. emphasized their desire to avoid joining those ranks.

“I did not want to get loans,” Brian says. “I set out, and that was my ultimate goal. It’s scary in this day and age. I want this experience, but what if something happens and I can’t use my degree? I hear these horror stories about people taking all this money to get their degree, and

it doesn’t work out for them. I’ve been in debt before and it was intimidating, and it took me a long time to get out of.”

For debt-averse students, larger scholarships that reduce the amount they must borrow at the outset can mean the difference between enrolling or not.

A scholarship student in an editing suite

A faster path to graduation

Larger, multi-year awards are also linked to higher graduation rates. Even with loans and grants, many students must work while in school to afford tuition and living expenses and to help care for their families. Larger awards allow them to work less and study more, shortening the time they spend in school. They also make it less likely students will leave school before graduating.

Jeremy S., another OCF scholarship recipient, describes balancing multiple jobs with his pursuit of a four-year degree:

“When I started my bachelor program, I was still finishing up (my associate degree). I was doing my internship for my paramedic license and working full time on an ambulance. I was also working full time over at the fire department and full time with school. It was getting to be a pretty difficult challenge because I’d be working 96-hour shifts, then getting off for a 48-hour period but trying to manage school and stay up on assignments while running 911 calls.”

Citing national studies, the OCF report found that every $1,000 increase in grants or scholarship aid leads to a 2.5-point increase in graduation rates. And scholarships that offer support beyond the first year make it more likely that a student will return the next year.

Giving where the need is greatest

Seel says one of the most powerful facts she learned while compiling the report is that nationally, roughly nine out of ten ninth-graders want to go to college.

That finding aligns with the results of a 2014-2016 survey conducted by OCF of 1,400 Oregon middle school students, many of whom were students of color, from low-income families or both, Seel says. About nine out of ten of those students also felt it was important for them to go to college.

And yet, for too many Oregon students — especially students of color, first-generation students and rural students — the dream of higher education does not translate into reality. Overall, only 54% of Oregon adults have a college degree or other postsecondary credential.

OCF donors are helping to bridge the gap between aspiration and degree completion. Of the more than 3,000 students who received scholarships through OCF in 2021, 63% were from low-income backgrounds; 62% were from rural communities; and 51% are the first in their family to attend college.

Scholarships make a bigger difference for students like these — those with the least access to higher education and the greatest financial need. Compared to programs based on merit alone, aid programs that focus on economic need are more likely to shift student access and outcomes, while middle- and higher-income students often find their way to a degree or certificate with or without aid, the OCF report found, citing a national study.

Says Carmen Andrea A., an OCF scholarship recipient: “It can be a life-changing thing for you. I don’t think (my parents) went to school past sixth grade. I’m the first one in my immediate family to graduate high school. I was attracted to college because I knew that it wasn’t just merely like ‘oh, I’m educated,’ but it’s something that could change my reality.”

Explore OCF scholarships or download “Bringing the Dream Within Reach” to learn more about the scholarship features that help students enroll and complete postsecondary degrees or certificates. If you are interested in setting up a scholarship fund, please contact an OCF philanthropic advisor at (503) 227-6846 or giftplanning@oregoncf.org.