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Scholarship Universe: An Elegant Solution to Common Enrollment and Retention Woes

The EvoLLLution | Scholarship Universe: An Elegant Solution to Common Enrollment and Retention Woes
Though many universities make hundreds of thousands of dollars available to students through scholarships, most of this money tends to go unclaimed as students often overlook scholarships as a viable source of revenue. Institutions that overcome this obstacle can vastly improve their retention and completion rates.

Many colleges and universities today may find themselves where the University of Arizona was a few years ago—having millions of scholarship dollars to award without a modern tool to effectively do so. Anyone familiar with scholarship management understands the challenges in transferring dollars from donors to students. While it sounds simple, the execution can be riddled with bottlenecks. However, this is only part of the problem—what about students? They need to find reliable scholarships and find them fast. So where do they go for additional college funding?

At the University of Arizona, they go to Scholarship Universe.

Scholarship Universe has eleven projects in its development suite, including machine learning, but simply put, it’s a homegrown scholarship management enterprise system for students and staff. We have married internal scholarship processes with the search for thousands of external third-party scholarships under what we are calling a 3-E model system: Elegant, Efficient and Effective. Efficiency and effectiveness are standard goals of any project, but elegance shouldn’t be overlooked. The most successful companies in the world understand that it doesn’t matter if you have the best product or service if it doesn’t also look the part.

Stages of Development

The first phase of Scholarship Universe was to develop the most advanced matching algorithm possible. Our motto is, “We search, you apply.” With thousands of opportunities and hundreds of eligibility requirements, our matching process yields extraordinarily higher scholarship success over traditional searching. The Scholarship Universe algorithm, which can be leveraged in other applications, has grown faster and more sophisticated, but could always evaluate suitability of each opportunity per student, regardless of the requirements. This was a goal from the outset.

The second phase of Scholarship Universe was to integrate the student management system of third-party scholarships with internal university scholarships and processes. Students are matched to both internal and external opportunities, but apply for internal opportunities directly in Scholarship Universe. We understand that applying for scholarships is not every student’s top priority, especially when another dreaded scholarship essay is required. Therefore, we aim to improve user experience.

On the departmental front, seventeen colleges within our university currently utilize Scholarship Universe to manage their scholarships and processes. With the same user experience in mind, it has a similar user-friendly feel to the student site. Plus it has everything one needs to effectively manage scholarships at a large university, such as collecting applications, recommendation letters, thank you letters and imported student record data; managing review committees, rubrics and funds; and reporting. The true testament to our departmental web software is that colleges partnered with us in response to open invitation. It has grown organically this way, and continues to do so.

Challenges to Growth

Executing any vision such as Scholarship Universe ultimately entails three fundamental challenges. The first challenge is having a clear vision to begin with, since a poorly-defined or communicated vision will run the risk of sending your teams, resources, and any chance of success down the wrong path, sometimes beyond the brink. Perhaps even worse, it may be trying to solve a problem that doesn’t actually exist. A vision possesses clarity if it defines not just how you’re going to solve something, but also what you’re going to solve and why. We understood the issues surrounding scholarship management because we work within a scholarship and financial aid department at a large university, and so we knew exactly what to fix.

Once a vision is well defined, the second challenge to overcome is getting started.  It doesn’t matter if your goal is to lose weight or build a large enterprise system—inertia will be your friend only after you get started, not before. General Patton once said that a good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow—it is better to start anywhere than to not start at all. There are many ways to prioritize what needs to be done, but fundamentally, there is a hierarchical nature of any goal. Identify the key pillars that support your vision and start by working on any one of them, sooner rather than later. You’ll learn so much more by doing instead of creating the perfect plan. For us in Scholarship Universe, starting meant identifying who at our university could build it and how we would obtain the scholarship content to fill it.

The third challenge in turning a large vision into reality is creating the ability to shift. This means that you’ve learned some new things and need to shift your goals, priorities and strategies, yet not abandon them entirely. The end goal remains the end goal. One simply has to decide what is feasible in the timeline and will bring the most value with existing resources. For Scholarship Universe, this meant postponing the departmental phase until we had some mastery on the third-party scholarship matching phase and a deeper understanding of the challenges that departments were facing.

Our daily mantra here in Scholarship Universe is that you can only improve by one percent at a time. Let’s become one percent better today. Over time, these incremental improvements have added up and proven successful for Scholarship Universe, which has matched millions of scholarship dollars to our students and earned two national awards in the last three years. There are some things we cannot control about scholarships, but many things can be done to enhance the process of finding, applying for, and managing them. After all, working with scholarships is an experience that thousands of students and hundreds of faculty and staff will have every year. We should make it a good one.

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