4 Essential Steps for Growing Higher Ed Scholarship Programs

If you’re reading this and attended college, there’s a good chance you’re in debt. Over 40% of Americans who attended college—30% of all adult Americans—are carrying at least some debt from their college education. That debt is usually a hefty chunk of change. The typical amount of education debt for Americans in 2017 was between $20,000 and $25,000.

How are colleges and universities addressing student loan debt? An increasing number of institutions are striving to offer free tuition to more of their students. All the Ivy League schools cover tuition for undergraduates whose families make less than $60,000, and some schools have raised the ceiling for need-based undergraduate financial aid even higher.

  • At Dartmouth, tuition is free for students with families who make less than $100,000, and Princeton has raised the threshold for full tuition coverage to $160,000.
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology covers tuition for students whose families make less than $90,000. Rice University no longer charges tuition for students whose family incomes are less than $130,000.
  • The University of Texas at Austin just announced a new endowment providing free tuition for students from families with incomes less than $65,000.

These programs are possible because of generous donations to scholarship funds. Fundraising is essential to the growth of any scholarship program, but it can be challenging to come up with fresh ideas that resonate with donors and prospects.

So today, I’d like to take you through the four essential steps of successful scholarship fundraising and share some ideas that can help you receive transformative gifts for your scholarship programs.

Step 1: Build Relationships with Students & Alumni

Scholarship fundraisers have a major advantage over fundraisers for most other causes—a built-in group of people who know about their organization and have personally experienced the impact of their mission: students and alumni. To effectively capitalize on this connection, you need to start building relationships with students before they graduate.

The first thing to ask yourself is, “Do my students know about fundraising for scholarships?” And especially, do they understand that scholarship gifts can range from small one-time donations to large endowments? Most students understand what a scholarship is, but they need to understand where funds for scholarships come from, why donations are important, and that every scholarship gift matters. Raise awareness with informational sessions hosted by the scholarship office, or work presentations about scholarship fundraising into preexisting events, like new student orientation or Homecoming.

Your relationship with current students should be a two-way street. Learn about students’ interests, hobbies, and significant moments. This will not only help you build relationships by demonstrating a genuine interest in student life, but also help you send targeted, personalized appeals that will resonate with these students when they are alumni.

Provide many ways for alumni to remain connected to your college or university. Invite them to attend special events, meet with current students, participate in book clubs, or follow you on social media. Alumni ambassadors on social media are an especially effective tool, since people are more likely to engage with communications from their peers.

Step 2: Actively Fundraise for Scholarships

To effectively fundraise for scholarships, treat your scholarship campaign like any other campaign. Create a case for support that clearly communicates both your need and the urgency. (Why should donors give to scholarships today?) As with any case for support, you need to present the problem—the lack of scholarship funds—and make the donor the hero who solves the problem by enabling a student’s education. Use this language to appeal directly to current students, alumni, and other prospects.

Invite current students to participate in the fundraising process to teach them about scholarship fundraising and form the habit of giving back. Have current students call alumni to solicit scholarship donations. Most alumni love talking to current students! Host giving challenges focused on current students. These challenges are especially effective when you capitalize on campus rivalries—between different graduating classes, Greek life organizations, sports teams, or other student organizations. Involving students in fundraising is crucial to forming a lifelong habit of giving. One college scholarship office that fundraised for scholarships by selling lapel pins to current students found that just three years after graduation, students who bought the pins were already donating ten times more than their peers.

Donating to scholarships should be easy. Put information about scholarship funds on your college or university’s Donation web page, and ensure that donors have the option to earmark funds specifically for scholarships.

Step 3: Steward & Celebrate Donors

When you do get a donation, treat that scholarship donor with just as much enthusiasm as you do your other donors. (Remember, some major donors to colleges and universities have entire buildings named after them!) Celebrate that donor for choosing to give to scholarship programs. If you don’t make scholarship donors feel valued for their contribution, it’s highly likely that they will take that money elsewhere.

Recognize scholarship donors through multiple channels. In addition to thank-you letters from students and scholarship officers, send personalized messages from the dean or president. Spotlight scholarship donors in newsletters, annual reports, social media posts, and emails. Celebrate scholarship donors with special events, opportunities to meet with leadership, invitations to donor galas, or special perks like tickets to sporting events.

Show scholarship donors the impact of their gifts by connecting them to the scholarship recipients. Provide opportunities for donors to learn more about scholarship recipients, whether it’s through face-to-face meetings, phone calls, or scholarship recipient profiles. Donors want to know things like the number of students a year helped by a scholarship fund and the types of outcomes the scholarship facilitates, so give them hard data about how their gifts are changing lives. The more scholarship donors can see the impact of their gifts, the more likely they are to renew these gifts in the future.

Step 4: Be Patient

A solid scholarship fundraising program is built on relationships, and relationships take time to cultivate. Some of your efforts may not pay off for several years—or even several decades—so keep this in mind when you plan your fundraising strategy. Publicize your progress and celebrate your successes along the way to help keep people inspired and focused on the bigger picture. Track what you have done well, so you can apply the lessons you’ve learned to keep improving over time.

While there is no quick fix, creating a long-range plan to invest in scholarship fundraising will pay major dividends. And the more scholarship funds you have, the more you can do what you do best: connect students with the resources they need for their educational journey.

Looking for more tips and tricks to improve and enhance scholarship programs at your college or university? Check out Blackbaud University’s Organizational Best Practices: Education—Higher Education Scholarships.