Program Profile: Denver Scholarship Foundation

April 28, 2016

By Liz Glaser - Graduate Research Assistant

Placed-based scholarships typically focus on helping students in one school district, city, or state attain college degrees by providing them with scholarship money and college counseling. While the scholarships are generally geared towards graduating seniors, the place-based programs often increase early awareness efforts and start the college conversations earlier than high school. This helps students prepare academically before the scholarship takes effect, and increases college-going generally in a specific area. In Colorado, the Denver Scholarship Foundation has been operating a place-based program for about 10 years. It has helped improve college attainment and get schools thinking about college earlier on. I spoke with Rana Tarkenton, the Deputy Executive Director, to learn more about the program’s history and details as she reflected on 10 years of continued program success.

Founded in 2006, the DSF started as a pilot program in three Denver Public Schools after two benefactors, DPS grads themselves, sought to increase college attainment in their city. Tim and Bernadette Marquez originally endowed a grant of $50 million, and they partnered with Governor Hickenlooper and (at that time) Superintendent Michael Bennet to develop a program that would specifically increase college attainment for low-income and minority students in Denver. The pilot schools were mainly schools with a large free-and-reduced lunch population, and were also largely Hispanic; this population in particular faced enormous barriers in going to college, so the Marquez’s fund was designed to work with them specifically. After the pilot was deemed successful, DSF scaled up, now serving almost all of the high schools in Denver.

Rana made it clear that the DSF was “never JUST a scholarship.” The program incorporates a three-pronged program involving advising, the scholarship, and college partnerships. In 2007, DSF established Future Centers in three schools; they have now expanded to 12. Future Centers are staffed by full-time college advisors to provide assistance and advisement on scheduling, applications, financial aid, or process advice necessary. Rana coined their strategy “intrusive advising,” meaning that the college counselors don’t wait for seniors to come to them with questions. Instead, Future Center counselors proactively reach out to students under the Future Center’s purview. This type of advising has increased student connection with advisors and the college application process itself, and has also made the entire process feel more accessible to students. Though Future Centers are only available in 12 schools, they reach a larger network of about 14,000 students and families annually.

In addition to advising, students receive a need-based scholarship.  Eligible students:
Have been enrolled in a Denver public School for all four years of high school, and have been included in the October Count for each of those four years;
Graduate from a DPS high school with a GPA of 2.0 or higher;
Apply for the DSF scholarship within one year of graduation
Have an EFC of less than 1.5 times the federal Pell Grant limit, or qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch
These eligibility requirements allow DSF to focus on students most affected by cost constraints, and work with them to achieve college attainment. The process for earning the scholarship is simple; applications are released in February and must be submitted by April 1. The application does not require essays, but it does require proof of FAFSA completion. Rana attributes this requirement to a FAFSA completion rate of over 90%. Students are additionally asked to apply to other scholarships – usually at least three. With an average amount of $2800 per year per student, the DSF encourages multiple funding sources to cover as many college costs as possible. 

Rana also noted that DSF is trying to focus on more than just college access – they’re interested in college completion. Thus, the third prong of the program involves college partnerships to boost completion. By partnering with 32 colleges and universities around Colorado, more scholarships and support are offered directly to students. Some receive special DSF scholarships, some have more access to different aid types, and most partnerships involve support services that last throughout college. In many of these partnerships, every $1 by DSF is awarded $2 by the partner school. These partnerships are likely increasing persistence; as more schools sign on to become partners, the students feel more connected to both the scholarship and the college. About 80% of scholars are still enrolled in college or have graduated from college, which is felt by Rana and the DSF team as a great improvement from the years before DSF. It's also higher than the national persistence rate of 68.7%.

One key aspect of the DSF is that they must fundraise annually in order to continue the work. Though the original $50 million was generous, it cannot support the capacity of offering more scholarships as the program grows. The largest donor is actually Denver Public Schools, which demonstrates the strong relationship that has been built. As more students are prepared to succeed in college, the schools and the scholarship foundation continue to build their partnership for increased success.

Though the DSF focuses on high school students, its effects reach a much broader audience. For many early awareness strategies, the conversation about graduation and college-going is just as important as direct programming for younger students. As more Denver students graduate prepared academically and financially for college, the impact reaches a larger audience, contributing to an overall increase in college-going culture in Denver.


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