What do we mean by "decentralized" anyway?
No two universities approach scholarship awarding exactly the same. One common shift in approach between larger institutions vs. smaller ones is the degree to which their scholarship process is decentralized - i.e., overseen by several entities, rather than one particular office or individual (i.e., AVP of Financial Aid). Example: many large institutions may have different scholarship processes across different departments, even several across the institution: one for the undergraduate liberal arts school, others for the undergraduate engineering and business schools, and even more for different graduate departments.
Is it really necessary?
Not always, but there's usually a good reason why these structures have persisted over time. Here are some common examples in which some level of decentralization can make sense:
- Application Process: departments may vary in their scholarship application process. Some will have different questions based on their reviewing and/or awarding criteria (essays, multiple-choice questions, etc.) while other departments may not require applications whatsoever. Others may ask for a portfolio of work or involve an interview process that do not apply for all departments at the institution. Likewise, departments that are on different timelines may open and close their applications on different timelines.
- Review Process: one of the most common differences at decentralized institutions is the review process. I.e., how do scholarship candidates get evaluated, who does it, when does it occur? Some deans or professors should be involved for one department, but not for others. Some departments may want to move away from a group review process altogether in favor of a more asynchronous, data-driven approach. This is one of the most common reasons why institutions remain decentralized - to accommodate the differences in review processes across departments.
- Awarding Process: some departments only offer need or merit based aid; others will exclusively do "stacked awards" (i.e., net additive to the student as opposed to "swaps" that are simply replacing already-promised institutional aid). Some departments may look to award students prior to matriculation while others will wait until students have completed their first semester or first year. These differences in timelines, decision makers and disbursement strategy can be materially different across departments causing any centralized office to sweat.
- Stewardship Process: departments with differing stewardship strategies may also decentralize their awarding process. Examples of differing strategies can include the frequency and types of reports sent out, the types of events held during the year, and the level of transparency offered between the student and the donor.
- Resources: an overarching reason for decentralization is due to the lack of resources. Many institutions are not set up for one scholarship office to oversee thousands of funds and applications each year, especially if they lack the technology, data integration and leadership alignment necessary to run a large scholarship process efficiently.
Is it so bad?
Again not always, but decentralized scholarship processes are rarely well executed when considered at the institutional level. A recent Awarded survey of many large higher ed institutions found that decentralized scholarship processes can suppress fund utilization and increase confusion amongst students due to a lack of centralized communication and visibility into scholarship availability. The main challenges we see that scholarship decentralization can have on each stakeholder:
- Students miss out on scholarship opportunities because there's too many places to go, too many questions to answer, too many websites with differing information
- College & university employees encounter unnecessary frustration and confusion due to the lack of centralized processes. It becomes hard to answer students' questions about scholarships. The game of telephone gets repeated. Individuals have to chase down different teams for data and accountability. Those who care the most end up bearing the most burden, on top of an already heavy workload.
- Donors can get confused and frustrated due to a disjointed experience. They come to expect one level of stewardship from one office, until they hear about a peer's experience working with another office, which perhaps offers more regular reporting or more detailed transparency into the use and impact of their funds. Then, if they call in to the Advancement office, they can't get straight answers because no single individual can provide them.
Hopefully you haven't seen all of these issues arrive in a perfect storm. And perhaps your institution is not in a position to centralize all of its awarding. So what can you do?
Best Practices for Decentralized Awarding
In order of least effort to most effort, we've arranged a sequence of best practices we've collected across many institutions that have run decentralized award processes:
- Conduct a staff survey - where can we improve, what are the biggest challenges
Keep this really simple to maximize participation and increase your speed. Keep track of responses across different departments. Ask questions like "what is the biggest challenge you face in your department's awards process?" or "what are 1-2 things you have tried to improve, and what was the result?" Look for ways that challenges are already being solved across departments, and flag any big hurdles that are holding multiple teams back.
- Get quantitative - compare fund utilization, thank you completion rates, etc.
Collect data points across teams to get an objective lay of the land. This can also help form the foundation for a formal proposal to make meaningful changes where necessary to the scholarship process. Are certain departments well below 95% fund utilization? Do some take months to collect applications or conduct reviews? Are there departments that lack deadlines or are having trouble getting students to engage? It's easy to fall back on "we're doing ok" or "we did a little better this year" - figure out what the exact numbers are. Oftentimes, they can be shocking and will instigate real action once it has been made obvious to everyone.
- Avoid unnecessary applications & reviews
Less friction = better engagement = improved outcomes.
Applications. Drop the unnecessary questions from your application, like GPAs, class year and other questions that are stored in your SIS and should not be subject to student error (intentional or not). Students should also easily be able to see what scholarships they're eligible for and what application(s) make sense for them to fill out or not, so they don't worry about wasting time on scholarships they'll never receive. You may also consider splitting your application into a "general" application that apply to most scholarships, and "supplemental" applications that are more scholarship specific - i.e., if one scholarship asks students to write a 500 word essay, don't ask everyone to write it. Better yet, your scholarship portal should only ask students that are otherwise eligible for that scholarship whether or not they want to complete an additional 500 word essay to be considered for that scholarship.
Reviews. Many institutions have done away with their formal review process involving a large group of reviewers sitting around a table reviewing students one-by-one. While some merits persist, this is becoming less and less feasible in a remote-first world. Let's say your institution is maintaining a review process. Step 1 is to automatically filter out ineligible students so that reviewers are spending their time reviewing eligible candidates. Step 2 is to centralize the necessary information so reviewing is made simple. Reviewers should have access to any relevant applications, SIS data, review rubrics and donor criteria all on the same screen so they're not cross referencing spreadsheets and different tech systems. Step 3 is to provide reviewers an environment where they can easily track what reviews they need to complete, associated deadlines, and receive reminders when a deadline is around the corner, so they can conduct their asynchronous reviews at an appropriate time.
- Publish a centralized scholarship database for students
Students deserve more transparency into their scholarship process. They should be able to view, sort, filter and apply across all scholarship opportunities for which they are eligible, across all departments. Hearing about new scholarships from a different department via an email they may not check months after they already completed a long scholarship application is not the best experience for students. It's important that students find out what they're eligible for and what the deadlines and application processes are for each scholarship in a self-serve portal without having to come into the Financial Aid office. Bonus points for SMS reminders to boost visibility and on-time applications.
If you've made it this far, you may have already thought "well we could never do this at my institution". And if that's so, that's a shame, because if there's a will, there's a way. Here at Awarded, we designed our scholarship software from the ground up to accommodate hundreds of different permutations of scholarship awarding. Our team can get your institution set up in weeks by doing all of the data setup for you, as well as setting up multiple departments on the software no matter how many different timelines, applications, review processes and stewardship strategies you employ at your organization. If you'd like to talk to a partner that is committed to your success and rolls up their sleeves to help you achieve your aspirations, get in touch with us.
- Craft a long-term strategy and get buy-in
Lastly, it's important to consider that change at a large institution may not happen overnight. It doesn't have to take years either. Radical process overhaul requires a clear vision, great planning, and strong buy-in across key stakeholders. It's helpful to map out what the near term milestones and objectives are, and how those will translate over time into a larger long-term strategy that will help improve the experience for all key stakeholders in the scholarship process. By taking action today, you can set in motion a meaningful improvement for the folks that matter.