The case for need-based scholarships is the case for our future

COVID-19 and its economic aftermath have caused a brute reckoning, laying bare and exacerbating existing social, economic, racial, and health inequities.

In access to higher education—an agent of opportunity for so many, for so long—colleges and universities moved quickly this spring to develop emergency funds for students. As days became weeks, the imperative for vastly greater need-based scholarships became unquestionable.

The first read of how the pandemic will reshape higher education—and particularly who gets to participate—is concerning. The precarious financial position of many current and prospective students has become just as clear as the value of a college degree.

In June, for example, the unemployment rates in the United States for those with only a high school diploma was 12.1%—nearly twice the unemployment rate for college graduates (6.9%). A survey of 1,500 Arizona State University students, published in June by the National Bureau of Economic Research, reveals the swift blow COVID-19 dealt to many ASU students. Some 40% of those surveyed had lost a job, an internship, or a job offer. One in eight students reported that their graduation will be delayed because of the pandemic—with low-income students 55% more likely to be negatively impacted than their more affluent peers.

This spring, as students and families began letting colleges know about their financial challenges, it was clear that the aid budgets developed several months ago were wholly insufficient. With institutional finances constrained and costs rising, philanthropy would be essential.

During the past four months, my team and I have partnered with colleges and universities of every size, type, and location. The assignment: Help us make the case for increased philanthropy for need-based aid. While arguments for need-based scholarships are specific to each college or university, they likely include some common core elements. For college presidents, gift officers, and writers developing their case, I offer the following considerations.

1. Start with your unique mission, aspirations, and donors.

Everything flows from mission, of course, including whom you serve and your priorities for the future. The case for financial aid at a large community college is different than the case at a small, private college, which is different than the argument at a large, public research university. Even within each institution type, goals can be wholly distinctive. Strategic plans offer directional guideposts, and sometimes specific goals, for aspirations in accelerating educational access. If the objective is more Pell-eligible students, for example, start there—your university’s alumni and donors might well already appreciate that this is a key priority.

Thinking through your prospective donors, especially at the most significant levels, will help shape the particular configuration of gift opportunities most likely to move them. One positive piece of news suggests giving to education has some momentum: The recently released Giving USA report that giving to education increased 10.1% in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2019.

2. Understand the scale of the challenge.

Making the case for scholarship support requires articulating not only the mission-driven impact you’re intending to make, but also the scope of the effort. Will student needs increase at rates comparable to what you saw during the Great Recession? That’s one possibility, but the larger budget issues and current calculus involves more variables. How many students will show up on campus or sign up for virtual classes this fall? For those planning modified in-person instruction, what are the new costs associated with socially distanced living and learning? For public universities, just how much will state support be reduced, and for how long?

Admittedly, enumerating the questions is the easy part. Providing definitive answers right now is nearly impossible. The point is to make your best approximation using past data and current insights.

3. Articulate urgency and human impact.

Institutions need to tell the story of what’s at stake, and for whom. Make the numbers of students who need help personal and compelling by telling illustrative stories of individual students—past and present—whose educations would not have been possible without private support. Resist the urge to sanitize the narrative, but be respectful. Sometimes, we err on the side of caution and shy away from sharing the hard truth. But without challenge in a story, there is no urgency. One communications tactic that empowers students receiving need-based aid is having them tell their own stories in first-person narratives.

As you develop your philanthropic proposition, consider that some research shows the playing field began to dramatically tilt long before the pandemic hit. Educational opportunity—as defined by who crosses the finish line to earn a degree—has been moving in the wrong direction, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Demography. In fact, the graduation gap between students from wealthy and poor families grew substantially for students born in the 1970s and 1980s. In that 10-year span, students from the wealthiest one-fifth of families increased their graduation rates from 46% to 61%. During that same decade, students from the poorest one-fifth experienced stagnant graduation rates—moving only from 11.3% to 11.8%.

4. Remember the higher purpose of higher education.

When I’m writing a case for need-based scholarships, I go back to first principles: Where you start in life must not determine how far you can go. The value of a college degree is individual, and it is societal. On a personal level, a degree correlates with higher incomes (by many measures, up to $1 million more over a lifetime), lower unemployment, greater health, and longer life expectancy. Those personal advantages jump-start a cycle of benefit that ripples forward, accruing to children and future generations who, like their parents, earn college degrees, enjoy better health, and so on. Zoom out and the social benefits are visible: innovation, research and development across so many fields, economic growth, and prosperous and strong communities.

Today, the personal and societal benefits of a college education are increasing exponentially. In the knowledge economy, ideas—and the ability to create and to learn for a lifetime—are the muscle that powers us forward. When you’re articulating the impact of philanthropic support for financial aid, include elements that are individual, broad, and fundamental.

5. Use “big” words.

This is a time for being clear about what could be lost if we do not act. We’re in a perfect storm of intense economic pressures that threaten a generation of young people, particularly those already on the margins. Hanging in the balance is the cultivation of their talents, the realization of their dreams, and the good they will create in the years to come.

Supporting educational access can be considered a moral issue—it’s about equity and the promise of the American dream. It’s an issue that will define our nation’s future. And so, it’s time to be clear, direct, and use “big” words. I’m not suggesting hyperbole or a string of adjectives—but powerful words that matter. Words like integrity, promise, nobility, responsibility, and purpose.

We’re in the middle of history as it’s being written. In partnership with donors, we have the chance to use this turning point to galvanize momentum toward true equality of opportunity in higher education. It’s the right time for private support to help remake the system and invest in potential, student by student.


Would you like help thinking through your institution’s philanthropic proposition for financial aid? Click here to email Melinda Church, who leads GG+A’s practice in Strategic Communications.

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The case for need-based scholarships is the case for our future

COVID-19 and its economic aftermath have caused a brute reckoning, laying bare and exacerbating existing social, economic, racial, and health inequities. In access to higher education—an agent of opportunity for so many, for so long—colleges and universities moved quickly this spring to develop emergency funds for students. As days became…