How to get the biggest bang from scholarship bucks

More than a decade ago, CSU attempted to simplify its scholarship-award system with a centralized scholarship application of its own. While the homegrown system was functional, it was something of a needy child. “It was very complicated and involved a lot of people and time to make it all happen,” said Candy Chapman, associate director of financial aid systems at CSU.

IT programmers and employees from Student Financial Services had to create and maintain the application, but that was just the start: A separate software application was needed by the CSU Foundation, plus each college and department had to create their own applications. “Every year, we’d have to collect changes from each college and department and then make updates to the system,” said Chapman. “There was a lot of time spent going back and forth.”

As cumbersome as the system was for university staffers, it was no less trying for students trying to use it to research scholarships. “We always spent all the scholarship funds, but sometimes it took some effort on our part to find some qualified students to spend the money on,” recalled Chapman.

Going to the cloud

In an effort to streamline the whole process, CSU switched in 2014 to AcademicWorks, a cloud-based solution currently used on about 350 campuses. The system allows schools to create one central database of all their scholarship funds and criteria. Students can search through the database to identify scholarships for which they qualify, although CSU students must submit a scholarship application form to be considered.

Each night, AcademicWorks imports up to 100 key data elements from the student records system on every student. “We use that information to automatically match and apply students to every fund for which they’re eligible,” said Phipps. “Students no longer have to go to 10 different department web pages to see every scholarship fund. They simply fill out one application and they’re automatically applied to everything.”

Changes that might affect student eligibility for a particular scholarship, such as a switch in major or a rise in GPA, are captured on a daily basis. “If we see a change to a student’s record, we’ll automatically apply that student to any new funds for which she’s eligible, and mark her ineligible for funds that she is no longer eligible for,” said Phipps.

Early indications are that the system has been a hit with CSU students. “This year we had several thousand more applicants than we’ve ever had in the past,” said Chapman. “I think we can say the students really like the application and find it convenient.”

As easy as the system is for students—at CSU, a link to the scholarship application is on the home page of the student portal—it has also streamlined the management process for university administrators, while still allowing individual departments to customize their scholarship applications.

“The colleges themselves all seem to be quite pleased with the fact that they can control their pieces of the process, manage their own review groups, and set the criteria to get the students matched,” said Chapman.

Departments can now log in to the system to see a list of all students that meet the eligibility requirements for their scholarships. “The Foundation will have a lot more ability to track how the funding is going and how the amount spent is changing over time,” noted Chapman. “For example, we’re awarding for fall right now, so we may award some incoming freshman who ends up not coming. We then have to re-award that. I think the Foundation is really excited that this will make it easier to track what’s happening with its funds.”

Phipps believes that a centralized scholarship-management system also leads to a more equitable distribution of money. “As they’re making awards, schools know how much a student has received in other scholarship awards,” he explained. “A lot of campuses never really had that visibility before to help maximize the impact of their scholarships and spread the wealth around.”

Andrew Barbour is an editorial freelancer with eSchool Media.