No one can argue that the financial aid process is frustrating. From complicated federal financial aid forms to conflicting University financial aid policies, for decades the financial aid process has created invisible barriers for our nation’s most vulnerable families. The student loan debt market is a $902 billion industry, according to the Federal Reserve, and one that often discourages "average students" from pursuing post-secondary education.
As the Founder/ED of The Scholarship Academy and a recipient of over $200,000 in scholarships myself, I designed a curriculum that helps low-income and first generation students develop strategies to navigate the private scholarship market using their leadership and civic engagement skills.
At The Scholarship Academy, our message is simple: it’s time to get rid of the cookies. I’m sure you’re wondering what “cookies” have to do with the financial aid process. We know that the average counselor spends 38 minutes per student exploring college options – this necessitates a cookie-cutter approach to financial aid, which largely consists of one-off financial aid nights and the infamous ‘scholarship drawer.” While many students can get into college, it is no surprise that 61 percent take out loans, and for many, gaps as small as $1,500 send them home.
The Scholarship Academy trains counselors how to move beyond this approach. Our online tool, The Virtual Scholarship Center, helps students create individualized four-year college funding plans that anticipate common financial obstacles, such as one-time awards or tuition increases that prevent students from maintaining matriculation.
Helping the 7 million low-income students who enroll in college every year pursue their college degrees without the overwhelming burden of student loan debt.
Over the years, our work with students, counselors, and universities has evolved into more than an opportunity to help students close financial aid gaps. It’s become a call to action to tackle financial aid policies at their core.
My Own Journey
As I look back on what The Scholarship Academy has accomplished since the Ashoka 2016 American Express Emerging Innovators Boot Camp, I can honestly say that I am grateful for the powerful reflection period that I had to grapple with some of our organizational challenges and consider my own leadership abilities.
I went into the program hoping to refine our business model, but through conversations with other innovators around the country, I left with a resounding commitment to think beyond The Scholarship Academy and explore ways to directly impact financial aid policies.
Recently, Cheryl Dorsey, President of Echoing Green, a global organization that invests in social entrepreneurs, asked a room full of social entrepreneurs and philanthropists in Atlanta, “What is the ‘hill’ that you’re willing to die on?” She challenged us to be more than just leaders of our organizations, but to be leaders in our fields. It can be tempting to get caught up in the innovation of our own business model canvasses, but often, the sustainability of our work lies in our ability to take risks that will disrupt entire industries.
Flipping the traditional financial aid model upside down.
This year has taught me that pushing back on a field that has historically allowed the financial aid process to “happen” to low-income families takes more than guts, it takes collaboration.
Our blended model connects three primary stakeholders – students, counselors and local scholarship providers – in a way that flips the financial aid model upside down. We bring these communities together to: (1) LEARN by equipping counselors with the appropriate technology to help students build scholarship portfolios and create four-year college funding plans, (2) DO by directly empowering disconnected youth with leadership, civic engagement and entrepreneurial skills that will position them for scholarship success, and (3) CONNECT local scholarship providers directly to our applicant pool to identify students and bridge critical funding gaps.
Ours is a curriculum and approach that counselors can use, but there is nothing cookie-cutter about it.
What Are We Willing to Do?
I know there are hundreds of entrepreneurs who are like me, motivated by the ability to identify a need in their communities that could be impacted through innovation and collaboration.
But increasingly, I suspect that the greatest pathway to impact will require us to get rid of some pretty big cookies – including challenging one-size-fits-all funding cycles that often don’t fit the infrastructure of community organizing and social justice movements. It will require standing up against pressure from city/state and even industry officials who seek to maintain the status quo. And perhaps most significantly, it will require organizational leadership to be bold enough to risk it all.
I believe that we all have the potential to “get rid of the cookies” in our industries. We all possess the tools to engage community stakeholders, program participants, and policymakers in new or more collaborative ways that can ultimately attack societal issues at their core. Social entrepreneurs are uniquely positioned to “do business differently” and now, more than ever, we must answer the call to create change in our communities.
I may not have all of the answers yet, but for the sake of the 7 million low-income students who enroll in college every year, I’m determined to do my part and de-mystify the financial aid process so they can pursue their college degrees without the overwhelming burden of student loan debt.
Jessica (right) in action.