Scholarship Group Unveils Policy Agenda With Heart

By John O. Harney

After nearly 60 years of helping students afford college, Scholarship America unveiled its first public policy agenda offering a refreshing focus on “advancing equity in postsecondary education and strengthening support for low-to-moderate income students.”

The priorities:

Expand public-private partnerships

  • Look to the private sector for experimentation, innovation and best practices
  • Support community-based scholarship programs in communities of greatest need
  • Encourage private-sector participation in federal innovation programs
  • Develop and train the future workforce through partnerships
  • Preserve and strengthen incentives for private investment in postsecondary education

Ensure a robust financial aid system that works for students

  • Increase access to federal financial aid
  • Strengthen the Pell Grant program (for low-income students)
  • Address loan repayment on the front-end
  • Harmonize government and institutional financial aid with private scholarships

Require institutional transparency, minimum standards and outcomes

  • Publicly share data about student access, success and college costs
  • Ensure minimum standards and outcomes metrics, college costs, and minimum standards and outcomes from all postsecondary institutions.

The agenda’s planks support some of Scholarship America’s pet issues such as commitments from college partners that Scholarship America grants be used only to fill unmet student need remaining after the institution’s financial aid package has been calculated—so a college or university doesn’t turn around and reduce its own institutional aid based on the Scholarship America grant.

Full disclosure, I served a few years on the advisory board of New England Dollars for Scholars, a subsidiary of Scholarship America.

To understand Scholarship America, you need to know Dollars for Scholars—the coalition of local scholarship organizations in communities across the U.S. that was founded in 1958 by Fall River, Mass. optometrist Irving Fradkin. Sometimes the Dollars for Scholars role was disparaged as “book money” because higher ed inflation had made the awards of a few hundred dollars seemingly useless in financing college. But as former Bentley University Graduate Business Dean Patricia Flynn used to note about her own Dollars for Scholars grant, in the tough days away at college, the memory of your community getting behind you could keep you pushing ahead when others might drop out.

Dollars for Scholars was officially chartered under the name “Citizens’ Scholarship Foundation of America” in 1961, moved its national headquarters to Minnesota in 1984, and changed its name to Scholarship America in 2003.

In addition to Dollars for Scholars, Scholarship America encompasses Scholarship Management Services, which designs and manages corporate and foundation scholarship programs.

I stopped serving on the regional advisory board when the New England board merged with counterparts in New York—a natural Northeastern alliance, but at the time, a little too close to Macy’s taking over Jordan Marsh and the New York Times buying the Boston Globe … never mind those Yankees dynasties. In July 2010, Scholarship America announced that its affiliated New York Dollars for Scholars office would close, and the more than 100 New York chapters would move under the umbrella of the New England Dollars for Scholars regional office to be known as New England & New York Dollars for Scholars.

Even fuller disclosure: NEBHE has been developing its own policy agenda. It’s not easy. Partly because NEBHE has been an expansive organization at times in its 60-year history, beginning with the basic goal of resource-sharing among colleges, but venturing into higher ed’s impacts on economic development and quality of life in New England and beyond, and recently moving back partially to a focus on serving member states’ policy needs.

It’s a lot of agenda items to fit on a whiteboard—the policy-planning weapon of choice. Pre-meetings to plan meetings. Post-meetings to evaluate meetings. Unpacking, onboarding. Much is quantitative, based on analytics—you know, just setting a goal is half the battle. But flexibility is also golden. “Issue identification” as an agenda item helps ensure timeliness and get out ahead of the next hot agenda issue.

John O. Harney is executive editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education.


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