January 20, 2021

How to Manage a Scholarship Program: Eight Industry Best Practices

Every scholarship program is unique, but we’ve found that the most successful scholarship programs focus on a few core themes. Whether you're launching a new program or thinking your established scholarship could use a refresh, consider these eight best practices.

After a year that turned everything upside down, it’s a good time to get back to basics with a review of best practices for how to manage a scholarship program — and how choosing the right scholarship management software can help you tie all of these practices together.

Determine your eligibility criteria and scholarship application process — Be clear about who are you serving

It all starts with your applicants: Exceptional students who are just one life-changing opportunity away from success. Give yourself time to think about who you want to attract to your program, then give your team an opportunity to compare notes. Once your ideal applicant has been envisioned, consider how your application will help you find this person — and how you can give them a positive user experience. 

This stage is also an opportunity to avoid one of the most common scholarship application stumbling points: Confusion about eligibility. Make your program’s eligibility criteria clear early in your application. This will save valuable time for both you and your pool of applicants.

Create an approachable scholarship application form

Work with your team to develop scholarship application questions that let students reveal their talents and passions in ways that transcripts and resumes can’t. This includes letting applicants express themselves through their chosen media, such as video, a design portfolio, or a slide deck, all easily uploaded through a single online portal.

If you'll need information from third-parties to make your decision, such as transcripts or letters of recommendation, be sure that the process for applicants to request and collect those is simple as well. 

Scholarship management software will let you design an application as basic or as complex as you require. A centralized platform allows applicants to submit as many types of materials as you require, and keeps these materials accessible and organized for reviewers. 

Set a deadline and promote your scholarship to a large pool of applicants

Nobody likes to be late — that’s why it’s important to set clear application deadlines. Whether your program is rolling, annual, or based on another increment of time, make sure timelines are clearly posted, and consider using other tools to keep applicants reminded as time ticks down. Helpful online reminders like a countdown clock in the application portal or email or text alerts when deadlines loom can make a big difference. 

Next, figure out a strategy to promote your scholarship. Everyone’s online right now  — especially students. So take your message to the platforms where students spend their time. For example, Instagram has over 800 million active users, most of whom are younger than 30. If you’re unfamiliar with a platform, take some time to browse. Pay attention to the activity of organizations similar to your own. And don’t be afraid to get creative with your approach! It can only help you stand out in an often crowded space. 

Help your team by drafting a clear program management process and timelines

Once applications start rolling in, you’ll want to be prepared with clear timelines for review as well as an optimized project management plan. An online scholarship management system lets reviewers access materials, review applications, and score applicants, all from one place. This allows reviewers to work collaboratively (and remotely) through multiple review stages, saving your organization valuable time. 

Review applications fairly 

During the review process, be sure to implement policies that allow for equitable application review. Implicit bias happens, and being aware of this can help you overcome this common problem. 

Your scholarship management software can help to ensure an unbiased review process by randomizing reviewer assignments and allowing for blind reviews. You can also create a review panel to open the selection discussion to a variety of people. These equitable review processes give the most qualified candidates the opportunity to rise to the top of the pile. 

Connect with scholars through their college experience to ensure retention

Your work allows students to break barriers to educational opportunities, but the barriers don’t end once the award is granted. 

The pandemic and its aftermath are certain to complicate the path to success for many students, particularly those who are economically or medically vulnerable. Scholar retention can slide during these circumstances, but you don’t have to let it.

Checking in with your scholars can help ensure that they get the support they need to succeed in their programs and make the most of their scholarships. Use your system to check in on your scholars’ records, to identify mentors from a pool of past recipients, or to send simple, automated email communications to let them know that you’re there. 

Evaluate your results

Scholarship management software gives nonprofit organizations an unprecedented opportunity to collect, analyze, and compare data. But collection of that information is just one component; the power in the data is how you utilize it.

Customizable dashboards let you track progress and generate up-to-the minute reports for monitoring during the cycle and reporting after. Combined with post-cycle deep dives and discussions on what worked and what didn't, this data can be the impetus for your scholarship program's improvement

Keep an eye on started applications that never are submitted, and look for commonalities in where applicants dropped off so you can improve the process or clarify questions for the next cycle. Review your demographic reports -- is there an area you aren't serving as well as you hoped? Be sure to pull reviewers into this conversation, as well.

Collaborate and learn from other scholarship providers

No one understands the issues facing scholarship providers like another scholarship provider. Reach out to other programs in your area or that support similar missions; you may be surprised at how willing they are to share their experiences and learnings.

Another amazing resource is the National Scholarship Providers Association, which offers regional and national events in addition to educational content, reports, and an online community.

Scholarships have become crucial in enabling the next generation of innovators and community contributors, and your organization deserves a both the technology and support system to be that stepping stone. Harness them, and your program will help facilitate a better future.


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