Putting Students First Isn’t Rocket Science: Hitting Refresh on Scholarship ManagementKen Downs | Manager of ScholarshipUniverse, University of Arizona
“If you build it, they will come.” From the 1989 American fantasy-sports drama Field of Dreams, today that quote has its own meme (in fact, its own meme generator). And rightly so. The phrase itself is an oversimplification. Yes, if you build it (whatever your it is) they may come (whoever they are). But they may not stay—and they may not ever come back. Here’s the thing: building raving fans takes effort, a commitment to customer engagement, and creating something—a product, service, experience—that provides tremendous value. So yes, if you build all of those things, they will come.
And to build all of those things, you must understand the value chain. Read on for how we conceptualized, developed, and commercialized ScholarshipUniverse—and flipped scholarship management on its head.
Scholarship Management: The Before Flash back to the economic crash of 2008/09. Many sectors were hit hard, including higher education. In Arizona, state budget cuts, scholarship donors unable to continue giving, and time-consuming institutional scholarship management processes compounded the economic situation. The final straw for us at the University of Arizona: the realization of how awful and disjointed the scholarship search process was for our students. So we decided to throw everything related to scholarships out the window and hit refresh. That’s how ScholarshipUniverse was born.
Scholarship Management: The Much Better After ScholarshipUniverse uses an adaptive matching engine to drive relevant funding opportunities right into students’ pockets via their smartphones. With a 70-percent student adoption rate and 95-percent internal adoption rate—65+ departments/units seamlessly managing scholarships with differing requirements from one cohesive mobile app—our refresh quickly gained momentum. It also gained a reputation for success: During the 2016-17 school year alone, UA students earned over $6 million in external private scholarships through the application.
CampusLogic: Student-first Everything ScholarshipUniverse’s success didn’t go unnoticed. The application won two national awards. As news of the results and award winds spread, other institutions became interested in the technology. In 2017, UA partnered with CampusLogic, a leading edtech growth company that earned a spot on Inc. 5000’s fastest growing US companies list in 2017. CampusLogic created and developed the only end-to-end student financial services platform in the nation. With a purpose to help schools change lives, the CampusLogic platform helps schools increase accessibility to education, reduce student borrowing, and drive down the cost of financial aid administration. More than 450 institutions—serving 3 million students—improve their enrollment yield, process efficiencies, and student satisfaction by better engaging students from the initial college search through graduation.
The partnership creates a synergy of mutual benefits and value for future users of both ScholarshipUniverse and the CampusLogic platform. In the near term, an advisory beta launch of ScholarshipUniverse with four other institutions is in the works. Broad commercial release is slated for Summer 2018.
Challenges, Solutions and Tips Homegrown technology created within a financial aid office isn’t licensed to a fast-growth company every day. It’s almost unheard of. Here are some hurdles we faced, so you don’t have to.
Scarcity Isn’t Scary: Running a Marathon with One Lung As you create something new, it’s easy to convince yourself that more resources—financial, time, talent—would make all the difference. If I asked you if you wanted to run a marathon with one lung or two, what would you prefer? Two of course! But you can still run a marathon with one lung. You’ll just do it more slowly. Building something big will always feel breathless—like you’re doing it with one lung. Don’t worry about scarcity, it’s a rabbit hole.
Challenges are Opportunities for the Right Person Prior to ScholarshipUniverse, I was a financial aid administrator and scholarship counselor. The roles were challenging, and resources were limited (remember the one-lung lesson). I was responsible for awarding scholarships without any means to identify eligible students, and countless students and parents crossed my path, all looking for additional funding. Our colleges and departments struggled with similar challenges. Funds went unspent, donors were frustrated by lack of fund utilization. Worse, funds were at risk of being misdirected to unqualified students. At the crux of all these frustrations: huge opportunity.
Create Immense Value, Everywhere Don’t pigeon-hole yourself by thinking how your creation can help one stakeholder group. Think bigger; connect disconnected stakeholders who are too in the weeds to see—or don’t have your vantage point to see—bigger opportunities. Purpose-driven businesses solve significant challenges. Want to create impact? Look for problems, and find collaborators interested in solving them. A great place to start is with people who are facing the problems themselves. Search out collaborators who have drive, passion, and persistence—because creating change is never an easy climb.
Be Agile—From Vision through Roll Out LinkedIn Co-Founder Reid Hoffman often says, “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” If you’re waiting for perfect—even for fully complete—you’re waiting too long. Agile software development and incremental usage are critical to your learning, and your success. Agile development leads to meeting user needs, meeting user needs leads to increased usage. A tipping point will occur where the voice of your users becomes more influential than your own marketing. Developed in stages and released incrementally, ScholarshipUniverse was built and rolled out as a completely iterative agile process. Instead of mandating usage, we formed partnerships with internal stakeholders who wanted to help guide ScholarshipUniverse’s development. These partners became advocates, and helped spread the word to others—much like how new apps on our phones grow in popularity based on user reviews.
Evaluate Market Potential: Blue Ocean Views Be sure to research if you are in a blue or red ocean. Blue oceans have virtually no competition. Red oceans are shark-filled and everyone is taking a bite out of each other. Known as Value Innovation, or the “Blue Ocean Strategy,” this idea comes from the bestselling book of the same name. Blue oceans are the waters you seek. If you find yourself in a red ocean, identify what world-famous value investor Warren Buffet calls “knowing your moat”—a.k.a: your competitive advantages. Castles use moats to fend off attackers. Your competitive advantages will fend off would-be sharks in your waters.
Leverage Strong Partners to Increase Value When you look for a partner to help you take your it to the next level, search for one with a similar mission and vision. Ensure they have excellent leadership and staying power. CampusLogic met these criteria for us. The UA team know that CampusLogic’s commitment to student-first scholarship management—and their focus on reducing friction across the student finance journey—are driven by their purpose to help schools change lives.
First Principle Thinking: It All Starts with Asking Better Questions You might be thinking success like ScholarshipUniverse has experienced isn’t on your horizon. Remember that success doesn’t happen overnight. Most “overnight” successes were years in the making—and combined a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck.
Engineers of overnight successes all share a common thread: They all asked better questions and challenged the status quo. For example, a scholarship is a gift made by an individual to fund a student’s education. This statement is a fundamental truth, a first principle of scholarships. However, students searching endlessly for scholarships across countless websites is not a first principle of scholarships nor is it a fundamental scholarship truth. The disjointed, tedious, exhausting search was simply a byproduct of how the process had traditionally been managed.
Ask questions to identify the first principles and fundamental truths of something. Then, as billionaire technologist Elon Musk says, “you reason up from there.” With ScholarshipUniverse, students can go to one site—and they don’t have to search for hours. Students are now matched in a matter of minutes, and continuously matched as new scholarships become available.
Want to flip something on its head? Ask better questions, identify first principles and truths. Then disrupt the heck out of it.
Author Perspective: Administrator