Succeeding with College Success: The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
Posted by: Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation
NCAN, with the support of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, is supporting 12 members as they begin or expand postsecondary success services for students. Using results from the Benchmarking Project, NCAN identified programs providing success services that have achieved positive postsecondary outcomes for students. In this blog series, we
will profile some of these programs and hear from them about their
approach, their advice, and lessons other member programs can learn.
Today, we profile The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis.
In 2020, The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis (the Foundation)
will celebrate 100 years of service to the mission of creating the
educated community that a democracy requires.
The Foundation provides approximately $5 million annually in
interest-free loans, grants, and paid internships to students with
significant financial need. In addition to direct financial support, the
Foundation offers advising on financial aid and admissions to 6,000
students and family members annually through individual appointments,
group seminars, public workshops, and webinars. Beyond these direct
services, the Foundation advocates at the institutional, state, and
federal levels for and with students who have everything it takes to
succeed in college but lack the financial means. Foundation students
graduate at a rate of 84 percent, which exceeds both the national rate
for all students (59%) and the alarmingly low rate for low-income
The Foundation offers a plethora of services to students, families,
and the community. The cornerstone of their work is last-dollar aid
toward the total cost of education. These interest-free loans and grants
must make up the difference between cost of education and the combined
total of Expected Family Contribution, institutional scholarships and
grants, and state and federal grants while not exceeding the
Foundation’s maximum debt limit (currently $11,000 annually). Students
receiving interest-free loans agree not to borrow elsewhere, making the
Foundation the students’ only lender.
Students whose initial plans do not meet the Foundation’s standard
(e.g., combined aid would not meet the full cost of education and/or
excessive borrowing would be required) are offered the opportunity to
work with an advisor to pursue an affordable and fundable plan.
Approximately 40 percent of applicants denied for excessive borrowing or
unmet need pursue this service.
The Foundation also links students to campus-based resources by
compiling campus resource guides and packets for institutions enrolling a
sizable number of its students. The Foundation distributes these
digitally as soon as students are awarded. Additionally, it distributes a
worksheet encouraging students to assemble contact information for
campus resources. Foundation advisors visit campuses that enroll
significant numbers of scholars and that are within a day’s drive. Staff
members make these campus trips frequently in coordination with
nonprofit partners from the St. Louis region who also have relationships
with the students, forming a mobile “village” of visiting support.
During the visits, staff urge students to use campus resources by
presentations and appointments to introduce them to key support staff.
Advisors work more intimately and in a more structured way with students
who are being closely monitored for academic issues. Formal agreements
are constructed in writing, articulating shared goals, timeframes, and
The Foundation also provides “micro-grants” for one-time needs.
Students encountering an unforeseen or one-time expense that threatens
their continued enrollment may be awarded a grant from the executive
director’s discretionary fund. Such grants may be used for expenses like
emergency dental work, replacing clothing destroyed by flooding,
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) renewal fees, travel home
to attend a family funeral, or grocery gift cards. Typically, these
expenses are less than $1,000 and not recurring or systemic. Students
may also apply for one-time grants for educational or employment
opportunities that carry associated expenses outside of their planned
cost of education. Advising staff administer these micro-grants, which
have included study trips, attendance or presentation at conferences,
and purchase of academic supplies or tools.
Finally, the program director provides individual debt management
counseling to graduates encountering repayment challenges with their
interest-free loan to the Foundation. Repayments are deferred or reduced
as circumstances warrant, with no additional cost to the student. In
addition, students seek guidance with regard to their federal loans. The
program director assists graduates and members of the public with
information and application processes for income-based repayment, public
service loan forgiveness, and other repayment options under the federal
I contacted Faith Sandler, The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis’
executive director, to get her thoughts about other aspects of the
program. (She also provided the insightful, in-depth information above.)
What follows below is a transcript lightly edited for length and
clarity with her responses and insights.
When did you decide to add success services, how did they develop, and when in your program's history did that occur?
Each of the services described above occurred at different times and
developed based upon resources and advancing awareness. Linking to
campus resources was earliest, recognizing that many students were
unaware of what was available or uncomfortable asking for help.
Due diligence practices in student awards arose from the realization
that too many students could trace their academic difficulties to root
financial causes. Whether they had borrowed too much or the wrong kind
of debt, were working too many hours, or got too far into their academic
career with a mounting overdue balance, it was clear that a much more
proactive partnership needed to exist on the financial front between the
Foundation and the student. In fact, awarding funds without ensuring
the student was both fully funded and fully aware was no favor at all to
the student. The Foundation began the approach described above with
assuring full funding approximately 10 years ago. We instituted
restrictions on borrowing (amount and source) three years ago.
Finally, newest in the toolkit of success services at the Foundation
are the micro-grant programs. Frankly, the financial need of students
and the shortage of family and campus resources to respond to these
relatively minor expenses drove the creation of these programs. For a
relatively small sum and the solving of a temporary and often somewhat
simple problem, students can stay in school and succeed. The development
of these programs was fostered by the appeal they have for donors.
Generally, these grants carry compelling stories that illustrate the
importance of the right help at the right time, given with no strings
and great trust.
What are the challenges you experience (or experienced) in getting this work off the ground?
- Acceptance of a “first, do no harm” approach: It took a number
of years and an understanding of the data to see that a seemingly
helpful action (making an interest-free loan or grant) could actually be
harmful if the right due diligence and understanding was not in place.
Seeing increasing numbers of students (locally and nationally) being
admitted with insufficient aid who were unable to remain enrolled was
instructive. Seeing the devastation of overdue balances was
heartbreaking and included forced withdrawals from school, students
working for years to repay a tuition bill from first semester of
freshman year, and inability to transfer or access federal aid while
academic transcripts are held for payment.
- Committing to financial solutions first: While there are
students who struggle academically and with intervening physical and
mental health issues, the vast majority of the problems — and thus, the
solutions — for Foundation students begin with financial resources. For
years, the money and the behaviors of students and the outcomes were
treated as separate matters. Now, the Foundation board and staff begin
with financial solutions and supplement or refer for other needs.
Which aspects of what you do are replicated from other programs, and which aspects would be replicable for other programs?
Among scholarship providers, the Foundation’s approach to due
diligence and award packaging is unique and has not been replicated from
other programs. The Foundation has shared its approach with others, and
others have replicated at least some aspects of the approach. Because
the Foundation is a funder, it has leverage in student decision-making
that other organizations will not have.
In terms of measurement, what are the key indicators you track for your success services? Which of NCAN’s Success Common Measures
do you track? What are the challenges around tracking them? What do you
wish you could track that either you cannot procure or that presents a
bad cost/benefit for obtaining?
The NCAN Success Measures that we track are:
- Average college GPA
- Year-to-year student persistence
- Percent of students completing a degree within 150% of time
- Percent of students awarded financial aid (ours is always 100%)
- Amount of financial aid awarded (total and per student)
- Pell Grant-Eligible
- Race and gender have become more difficult to categorize and
measure. That makes consistent reporting from year to year either
difficult or potentially offensive.
- Transcripts are inconsistently formatted and are never delivered
as usable data. We have to get official transcripts, read them, and
then enter data manually into our systems. That makes academic progress
difficult to capture and timely academic data that could be used to
identify problems before a student gets in trouble almost impossible.
- Converting and interpreting the student aid report (SAR) is also
harder than it should be because it arrives as a PDF rather than as
What we wish we could track:
- High school-level academic performance data about students who
come to us for financial support. Specifically, it would be great if we
could do a better job at identifying risk factors for success and use
that information in providing more targeted services to specific
- Real-time student loan debt data. While level of debt is not a
success indicator, it can be a huge factor in persistence (and thus,
success). Unfortunately, what’s reported on the SAR is for the previous
year, which makes it hard to identify bad borrowing in time to do much
about it. We could be better informed and able to intervene sooner if we
were able to get debt load information for students directly from the
National Student Loan Data Systems (NSLDS).
[Ed. Note: This key performance indicator (KPI) dashboard
from the Foundation is a wonderful example of data in a dashboard
telling a story. It emphasizes three important prongs for the
foundation: mission focus, direct financial support to students, and
student success. With just these five metrics and a little narrative,
this organization has a product that shows the public, stakeholders,
funders, and others what they do and how they do it.]
What are some of the key resources or supports you think the
field needs to expand and improve the success services provided to
students? i.e., What can NCAN do at a large scale in terms of
professional development and training?
Large-scale or high-level endeavors to boost success programming:
- Maintain relationship to “access” – providing access without
setting up for success is cruel. In admitting, awarding, and opening
doors, help members understand the damage that can be done if success is
not also programmed.
- Continue to strengthen advocacy efforts and the networks
supporting them, with a sharp focus on low-income students and issues
that adversely affect them.
How do you balance the demand to provide more access support
with the desire to provide more success support? How does that cause
organizational shifts in, for example, securing funding, board
commitment, and staff training?
We do not see these as separate or distinct but as essentially
related (if sequential in students' lives). Funding follows, but it
takes time and patience for donors to understand the dynamics. For
donors and board members, the “feel-good” success stories have to come
long after the presentation of the big check for the first year of
funding. We have to stop the single story narrative of access as just
raising awareness or even opening the door.
How do you cooperate with colleges in supporting students?
The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis disburses award funds
directly to students and not to schools. The primary cooperative
relationship the Foundation seeks is with the students and the
community. Due to award displacement at many institutions, the
Foundation does not cooperate with colleges at the individual student
level unless the student requests and authorizes such cooperation. At
some schools where policy, practice, and approach to students align with
the Foundation’s, cooperation exists in joint programming (both in St.
Louis and on campus). There are also several campuses where mutual
agreements exist to share early warning signals when students are
experiencing academic difficulty, and there is at least one campus where
the institution matches the Foundation’s support with institutional
How do you provide services to students who attend schools
far away from your program’s location? What advice do you have for other
programs in serving their own students at a distance?
There are numerous technology solutions to this challenge including
text messaging platforms, video instruction, periodic emails tightly
focused on student needs, and social media updates and reminders. Campus
visits once each semester are helpful, and scheduled check-ins with
students during winter break or summer in St. Louis are all useful
Thank you to Faith for her time and responses and to the foundation
for their NCAN membership. We will return soon with additional profiles
of programs succeeding with college success.