College Success

Six tactics that help Dell Scholars graduate with 76 percent less debt than their peers

We first meet members of our Dell Scholars Program as high school seniors. Reading through their applications every year is a study in what it takes to persevere and excel. Some students have dealt with homelessness; many more have faced frequent nights without meals. Others are the sole English speakers in their homes, and have a key role in helping their non-English speaking parents manage financial and other important interactions.

Many have parents who have become ill and can’t afford medical care, or who were hurt on the job (many of these students’ parents do tough, physical labor), and who have been unable to find work since; others come from families in which the adults struggle with substance abuse and incarceration.

It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that these students’ college journeys are seldom easy. Almost all hit obstacles. And yet, our students persevere and graduate at a rate of over 80 percent. This month, over 200 are exiting the program, college degrees in hand.

That’s a huge reason to celebrate. But we’d also love to see some simple practices spread to ensure that the answer to the question, “who gets to graduate?” isn’t quite so pat.[1]

Small tactics make a big difference

We’ve seen that these students need targeted support on multiple fronts, situational, academic and financial. But we believe that [tweetable]one key to Dell Scholars’ success is the special emphasis we put on helping them make the best possible use of the their financial aid packages.[/tweetable] We employ a handful of very practical approaches to help students apply relatively small awards in ways that have an outsize impact on their ability to persist in their studies and graduate with a minimum of debt.

[quote]We employ a handful of very practical approaches to help students apply relatively small awards in ways that have an outsize impact on their ability to persist in their studies and graduate with a minimum of debt.[/quote]

What are those tactics?

  1. As soon as we admit new scholars into our program each year, we call every single one of them (there are 300 annually) to ensure they understand their financial aid packages and to address other questions.
  2. We help scholars understand how various financial awards affect one another. For instance, if scholars make a scholarship request, and it appears that our funds may displace other financial aid, we contact students to alert them and discuss the options. Yes, this can take time, but the Dell Scholars team has seen countless instances where students had no idea that requesting our funds would put them in an over-award situation, which could result in the reduction of other grants or scholarships they need to get by.
  3. We offer a loan repayment option for students who need it. This option can help them avoid financial aid displacement.
  4. We support students through academic probation. If students lose financial aid because their grades have slipped, causing them to fall short of satisfactory academic progress requirements, we sometimes send funds to keep them enrolled. (This type of aid is dependent on students having an actionable plan to bring their GPA up to where it needs to be in order to regain their financial aid.) This practice has kept many students on track until they again qualified for the additional financial aid they need to graduate.
  5. We assist with academic and financial aid appeals as a third party reference, and document all scholar contacts, a record of which is often required during the appeal process.
  6. We allow students to self-manage their awards. We have an annual scholarship limit, but if students don’t need the funds, we don’t send them. Sure it would be easier to send one standard amount every year, but with varying scholarship terms and financial aid packages that change from year to year, we don’t believe it’s a responsible approach to financial disbursement. In fact, we’ve seen that allowing students to use their funds only when they need them can impact persistence in a positive way.

What difference does this make? Not only are our scholars graduating. They’re doing it with comparatively low debt. In average 2014, college students graduated with an estimated $33,000 of debt; by contrast, Dell scholars carry an average load of less than $8,000.

June is a great month for us. We love seeing snapshots of these students in their caps and gowns, and knowing just how great their achievements are. After all, we’ve traveled a long road with them. So to our graduating scholars, congratulations!! And to our incoming scholars, we can’t wait to see where you’re headed.


[1] In the words of Paul Tough, writing in the New York Times Sunday Magazine last month, “whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor — how much money his or her parents make. To put it in blunt terms: Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t. Or to put it more statistically: About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.”