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Putting Scholarships on the Radar for Non-Traditional Students

AUDIO | Putting Scholarships on the Radar for Non-Traditional Students
As student loan debt is skyrocketing and increasing numbers of students worry about the cost of higher education, colleges and universities need to be more vocal about the availability of scholarships.

The following interview is with Cynda Alexander, non-traditional student programs coordinator at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Alexander was recently quoted discussing the difficulties many adult students face in accessing academic funding resources. In this interview, she expands on that idea, discusses the availability of scholarships for non-traditional students and shares her thoughts on the role of institutions and government bodies in helping to make more learners aware of the availability of scholarship funding.

1. What are the biggest challenges adult students face when it comes to finding available scholarships?

The biggest challenge is knowing that scholarships exist for them. The first scholarship workshop I held in January 2013 for non-traditional students opened my eyes to what the general student population thought of when it came to scholarships. They thought they wouldn’t be eligible because they were non-traditional. … At [the University of Arkansas], we define non-traditional students a little differently than most higher education institutions. … We have no age minimum — you don’t have to be 25 and up. When I started this position three years ago, I wrote a very extensive proposal on how to serve our non-traditional students. We changed the definition of the non-traditional student [to include]: if you delayed enrolment after high school, you work part-time, you work full-time, you’re financially independent from your parents, you’re in the military, you’re first-generation, you’re already a parent. That makes them non-traditional. They don’t live in our residence halls. We are a metropolitan university; we only have 1,400 beds on campus but we have 12,000 students, so most of our student population is non-traditional given our definition of it.

2. When you’re looking at the capacities for these scholarships to allow students to actually enter schools full time and gain degrees, do you think non-traditional students would have the same access to higher ed without scholarships as they do with them?

No, and I’m talking about Arkansas. I know our student population here. 90 percent of our students are on some type of financial aid. Traditional financial aid insofar as student loans, Pell grants; it becomes a vicious circle, it really does. These [students], they come in with this aid, and by the end of the first year they withdraw, they’re on academic probation; “We’ve lost our finances, we’ve lost our scholarships, we can only rely on student loans, we’ve lost our Pell grants.” Student loans [lack accountability]; you never see anybody, you never see the government. … With scholarships, there’s accountability. You have to write a letter to the funder, you have to thank the funder. As far as impacting accessibility and retention, I can’t think of a better pull to open the academic doors than promoting scholarships as a way to pay for your education. It would impact the students that otherwise would not be able to go to college, especially the students that have a hodgepodge of credits, past poor academic performance [or have] several withdrawals on their record. Traditional financial aid sources could be inaccessible to them because [the students] look really bad on paper, but with the essay you have to write as part of the scholarship application, it gives them an opportunity to explain their academic mishap.

3. What else can institutions do to improve understanding among non-traditional students of available scholarships?

Instead of passively saying, “Oh, I see you’re taking out student loans to pay for your education? Good, just sign here.” The advisors should counsel students on scholarships.

When a non-traditional student shows up to my office, the first thing I ask them … is, “How are you paying for your education?” and when they say, “Student loans,” I grimace. … Usually they tell me it’s because that’s the only way they have to pay, they can’t afford to write a check [or] they simply don’t know any better. I probably get that 90 percent of the time. And the 10 percent that might know that scholarships exist? They’re under the same impression as [many other adult students]: “They don’t apply to me, I’m a non-trad, who’s going to give me money?”… I’ve heard 70 percent of scholarship money is never awarded. Based on our lack of applications for private scholarships, I would say that’s about right. They just don’t apply. I think every point of contact within an administration needs to talk to a student about scholarships. … I think institutions have become very passive and tell students to fill out the FAFSA and that’s the end of it. Fill out that magical form. They think it’s a panacea for financing an education. I personally think the scholarship office should be as big as the financial aid office at a university, or perhaps bigger. I mean, it doesn’t cost the university to have scholarship money paying for a student’s tuition. The bottom line doesn’t care who pays for it as long as it gets paid.

I’ve looked at other institutions and it’s pretty much standard. You get one scholarship coordinator and then you’ve got the humungous financial aid department. I think we have to turn the tide; every point of contact, every administrator they come into contact with, [needs to ask], “How are you paying for your education?”

4. Is there anything state or federal government bodies can do to make adult students more aware of accessibility to scholarships?

Given the current state of the student loan program it would be in the best interest of the government to make students aware of scholarships — perhaps actually offer some. When you fill out the FAFSA there’s no question that asks, “Did you apply for scholarships first?” I don’t think it would be a conflict of interest with the government considering the student loan program’s huge debt and default rate is at an all-time high. Would we rather have citizens with completed degrees that are employable or citizens with half-finished degrees. … Each individual university needs to make it part of their culture. We can no longer be complacent and accept [student loans] as the final answer to pay for college. … With the economy leveling off, students aren’t enrolling like they were several years ago. We have to embrace our new demographic of students and the changing culture and be prepared to help them be successful in obtaining higher education. “I can’t afford to go to school” should be, “Can you afford not to go to school?”

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the role institutions can play in helping students get to a place where they can afford their education without taking on debt?

I really think it just starts with the first point of contact, the very first, whoever they talk to at the university … needs to [ask students how they are paying for their education] and make them aware. …

Most students will qualify for some scholarship one way or another. Scholarships are not the magical answer — they really aren’t — but they’re definitely a significant tool in the university’s acceptance and retention toolbox.

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