Donors know that higher education is essential to upward mobility and career success. Many want to help first-generation students, for whom higher education would help them to realize the American dream.

That’s why many donors are drawn to creating opportunities for first-gen students to attend college.  In fact, high-net-worth and ultra-high-net worth are even more likely than other donors to give to higher education. As someone who has counseled higher education donors about their giving, I’ve spoken with many of these donors, and the first thing many think of is scholarship support.

Frankly, while first-gen students need help with higher education access, there may be greater opportunities for donors to help first-gen students by helping them with degree completion.

Why? Isn’t a scholarship the most direct way to help? Sometimes, yes. But often, the answer is no.

First of all, savvy donors should know that there is no certainty that donation to a school to fund scholarships will truly increase the number of financially needy students at the school. Frederic Fransen, co-founder of Donor Advising, explains why:

“Scholarship money is functionally identical to general support for the university. Scholarship funding is part of the overall budget, and universities “top up” scholarship funds with general revenue. Adding money to a donor-funded scholarship may simply take it away from somewhere else—if not immediately, then certainly over time.”

Even establishing a private scholarship—for example, through a donor’s foundation—is no sure way to help more needy students enroll. As a scholarship-dependent college senior explained in this New York Times op-ed, when a student receives a private scholarship, her school’s financial aid office may decrease her aid package by that same amount, on the premise that those school-based scholarship funds can be redistributed to yet-more-needy students. Or, as Fransen explains, it may also enable more money to trickle back into general support for the school.

Even more than the difficulties in ensuring that donations to fund scholarships actually increase access, there are other compelling reasons for donors to consider supporting degree completion.

First of all, college completion is more important than ever. A few decades ago, some college was better than no college: if someone got a year or two of college, even if he didn’t complete a degree, he had a leg up in the workforce.

No more. Today, someone who does not have a degree, even if he has some college, has little advantage over someone with just a high school diploma. Indeed, they may be worse off, for years spent in college come at the price of student debt, years of lost opportunity to gain skills and experience in the workforce, and discouragement from not having been able to complete the degree. Students who leave without a degree often would be better situated for attaining adult milestones like home ownership, marriage, and starting a family if they’d never attended college at all.

For many reasons, first-gen students are less likely to complete degrees: on average, they are more likely to run short of financial resources, to have their studies interrupted by a change in family status (such as a birth or death in the family), and to meet other obstacles to completion. And they enter college with less knowledge about how to navigate everything from course selection to using library resources.

There are many paths for donors to support the success of first-gen students beyond scholarships. Consider these examples of innovative programs, many of them donor-funded:

And, of course—financial aid is still necessary. But there are ways to target scholarships to the particular needs of first-gen students. For example:

  • Elon University offers donor-funded Odyssey Scholarships that, in addition to financial aid, provide four years of peer-to-peer mentoring as well as staff-led programs through Elon’s Center for Access and Success.
  • Rather than helping students with a scholarship at the start of their studies, sometimes what students need is just a little bit more aid to complete their degrees. Georgia State University’s Panther Completion Grants awards grants of as little as $300—I attended a presentation where a school administrator mentioned that the average grant was under $1,000—to assist students within a few courses of graduation who had unmet financial need. (When one thinks that just a few hundred dollars can make the difference between degree completion or not, and what it means for that student’s life prospects…for want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.) The program has had a terrific result: 86% of students who receive a Panther Completion Grant graduate.

Supporting first-gen college success is so important to creating opportunities for individuals—and so important for the civic and economic future of our country. There are many ways to support these students—not just aiding their entry into college, but supporting the successful completion of their degree. Interested donors will do well toward achieving their philanthropic goals by considering diverse ways of supporting first-gen college students.

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