Awarding scholarships may be a key component in increasing student retention – at least that’s what the numbers indicate.
Data from the 2016-17 and 2017-18 academic years shows that 81 percent of students who received a scholarship were retained; this is compared to the 74 percent overall Clarion University retention rate.
"Clearly, scholarships are helping," said Dave McFarland, Clarion University director of scholarships. "(Attending college) is becoming awfully expensive," McFarland said.
Clarion has 320 endowed scholarships totaling $2.8 million, McFarland said. Matching eligible students to scholarship criteria is part of why McFarland was hired. Clarion is the only State System school with a director of scholarships.
To help students identify scholarships and to streamline the application process, McFarland implemented a scholarship database last year, called Scholarship Manager from NextGen Solutions. The application determines if a student's information matches scholarship criteria and populates a list of the scholarship matches. The software also outlines other requirements for award consideration, such as writing an essay or letters of recommendation.
After some initial hiccups, McFarland's office processed applications from 1,249 students. Many of the scholarships were probably never on a student's radar, McFarland said.
For example, this year the Clarion University Alumni Association Scholarship and Leadership Awards had 111 qualified candidates. The amount of money available in that scholarship was $12,000. Twenty students were interviewed, and 11 scholarships were awarded, McFarland said.
The Office of Alumni Relations reported that in year 2016-2017, there were only 12 applicants for the scholarships which would have been used in 2017-2018.
McFarland explained that dispersing scholarship funds among multiple students enhances educational access, which increases enrollment numbers, and in turn, helps students graduate.
"The scholarship I was offered only reinforced that Clarion was right for me and I was right for Clarion," said Alexis Robison, a junior environmental biology and environmental geoscience double major. "Without it, I may not have ended up at Clarion, and now it feels like home."
Maxwell Wahlabaugh, a sophomore biology/pre-chiropractic major and wrestler from Winter Springs, Fla., said the scholarship he received in his freshman year provided much-appreciated financial support and inspired him to put extra effort into his studies.
"My dad works hard to do what he can, but getting the scholarship was a huge help," he said. "(Donors) are giving me the opportunity to work hard, and I don't want to disappoint them."
In addition to endowed scholarships, high achieving students can earn scholarship money through merit scholarships, based on their high school grades and test scores. That scholarship money is renewable each year for students who maintain a good GPA, McFarland said.
Although Clarion's endowed scholarships have already been awarded for the 2018-19 academic year, students can still seek external scholarships. Clarion's website features an external scholarships page. It's up to the student to do the legwork of sorting through those scholarships to determine eligibility.
Another external scholarship source available to Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education students is the State System itself. PASSHE offers a variety of scholarships with an online application process similar to Clarion's. Results direct students to scholarships for which they may be qualified. Like at Clarion, some scholarships require additional forms such as letters of recommendation, verification of financial need or an essay, which can also be completed online.
McFarland hopes more people will consider donating to fund scholarships.
"We don't have enough needs-based scholarships," McFarland said. But the need is definitely there, and the funds will be put to good use.
Natalie Everett was a scholarship recipient as an undergraduate and now is the recipient of the Master of Accountancy Scholarship entering into her first year of graduate school.
"Scholarships give me a sense of relief that I don't have to focus on my financials, and they give me the knowledge that I can focus on more important things like my classes and my work study," Everett said.
McFarland is available to help students with essays or any questions about the process. Contact him at 393-2108 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.