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It's Not Just About Aid Anymore

Four ways to sweeten the offers to high-quality students
University Business, Jul 2010

When competing for top students, many colleges are finding that offering merit awards or generous need-based packages is no longer enough to win the day. Academically successful students typically have multiple offers from which to choose. So, all things being equal when it comes to financial aid, how does a college compete for the best and the brightest? Here are four ideas for sweetening the offer to the student that everybody wants—because it's not just about money anymore.

Hundreds of colleges and universities have established honors programs to attract top-tier students—some with longstanding traditions and proven outcomes. The best have certain attributes that are particularly attractive to prospective students. Typically, they have a merit aid component tied in as a benefit, but as Betsy Porter, University of Pittsburgh's director of admissions and financial aid, states, "Generally speaking, students and their families are collectively looking for more than just a merit scholarship."

Motivated students are looking for communities where there's active engagement not only with faculty mentors, but also with peers who will challenge them. So, to encourage top prospects to visit your campus, consider offering special events that will give them the opportunity to meet other like-minded students. These events should be seen as a time to not only celebrate your visitors' accomplishments—it's about them, not you—but also a time to show how current honors students on your campus are being challenged and recognized.

For example, if current honors students are involved in faculty research, if they are starting new initiatives in the surrounding communities, or if they have studied abroad, this would be a perfect time for them to share their experiences and accomplishments with visiting students and parents. Consider inviting honors program alumni to speak about their experiences during and after their time on campus. This will help prospective students see that they would be joining a tradition of excellence and success.

Students who are bright, accomplished, motivated, and capable still need direction and support.

Other benefits designed to appeal to the desire for community would include:

  • An honors floor in the residence halls where intentional living and learning communities are available to students who opt-in.
  • Peer mentoring by upper division honors students.
  • A special gathering place or study area for honors students.
  • Social or service activities for students in the honors program that give them the opportunity to collectively pursue a theme or an agenda for the year that is linked to serving the campus or off-campus community or to raising awareness on critical issues.
  • Most importantly, ensure that honors students have the support and mentoring they need. As Porter shares, "Outcomes are important, but it's not just about how many Marshalls, Rhodes, or Fulbrights come out of your institution. Students who are bright, accomplished, motivated, and capable still need direction and support. Sometimes it's as basic as the notion of having someone to talk to and having faculty mentors who can listen."

Certainly the academic component of an honors program is also important. Special honors sections of core courses, special opportunities for independent research or interdisciplinary study, and opportunities to get into the major earlier are all examples of curricular advantages offered in some honors programs.

Other "perks" for honors students can be administrative—e.g., early registration, special work opportunities. The point is to make the features and benefits of being in the honors program clear and a part of the recruitment process.

Students (and their parents) are increasingly concerned about gaining experience that will provide a leg up in employment or graduate school acceptance after they complete an undergraduate degree. Top students are no exception to this rule! Some institutions have begun sweetening the merit offer to top students with a stipend for a paid research opportunity, internship, or study abroad experience.

The promise of a paid experiential learning opportunity early in the college years can have a profound effect on not only the enrollment decision, but also on students' ownership of their education, according to research published by James Scannell and Kathleen Simpson in Shaping the College Experience Outside the Classroom (University of Rochester Press, 1996). This research, which examined the attitudes and outcomes of high-achieving students in a variety of experiential learning programs, found that "educationally purposeful, career-related work opportunities" provided close interaction with adult supervisors; developed and instilled confidence in communication and networking skills; and challenged students to become more adaptable and flexible—all character traits that eventually led to positive outcomes such as increasing marketability in the job field and influencing choice of career, graduate, and professional studies.

Utah State University's undergraduate fellowship program, for example, offers research grants to 30 to 40 top first-year students selected during a Spring Scholars Day, when the university hosts a special celebration for all scholarship recipients. As Joyce Kinkaid, associate vice president and professor of English, points out in her 2008 article, "A Successful University-wide Model of Undergraduate Research: Utah State University" (available online at, "The fellowship offers students the experiential learning that will result in dividends when applying for graduate study." Among other responsibilities on campus, Kinkaid is charged with oversight of the Fellows at the undergraduate level.

Demonstrate how you will support opportunities that cross traditional academic boundaries.

Highly motivated and accomplished students tend to be passionate about ideas and opportunities that may not fit neatly into existing departmental structures. To successfully attract such individuals, institutions need to demonstrate how they will support opportunities that cross traditional academic boundaries.

One example is the dual-degree program combining the Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees offered since fall 2008 by Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design. As RISD's website notes, it helps students "explore the integration of a wide range of disciplines combining the rigorous degree requirements of both institutions."

"When the dual degree program was introduced, we did experience a boost in applications that has continued since its inception," says Lucy King, assistant director of RISD admissions. "This program attracts a very specific kind of student, one who wants a studio experience that dovetails with a parallel academic experience." One student currently in the program is combining Environmental Science with Apparel Design so she can design clothing made from sustainable materials.

When Dellynne Strawbridge, a gifted student from Florida, was looking for a college to pursue her degree in the theater arts, she wasn't searching for an undergraduate program that would offer only the typical course work in the fundamentals of directing, production, and stage design. Strawbridge knew she wanted to use her developing craft to inspire urban communities, and in particular, to challenge urban youth to dream. Several colleges offered generous financial aid and thriving theater programs, but they all were formatted similarly. "I had to do the program their way," Strawbridge explains. She did not take to the formulaic and impersonal approach. Instead, she was drawn to Gordon College (Mass.) because of a unique partnership between the college, located in Wenham—a small suburban town located 25 miles North of Boston?and its urban neighbor minutes away to the south, the city of Lynn.

The Gordon-in-Lynn program challenges students to think creatively as they explore their academic passions and the needs of an urban community. "When I ... met with the head of the theater department, I began to see myself living out my goals," Strawbridge shares. "My faculty interviewer listened to me and then he began to describe a unique partnership the college had with Lynn." She enrolled at Gordon and, with the freedom to flourish and the flexibility to think entrepreneurially, Strawbridge was soon recruiting and organizing volunteers and selling her idea to community leaders (e.g., the Boys & Girls Clubs of America).

The common thread in all of these ideas is the offer of special opportunities in addition to an attractive aid offer. Whether those opportunities are social, academic, experiential, or entrepreneurial, they all speak to the top student's desire for added value. Especially for institutions not at the top of the prestige "food chain," the merit offer needs to be "packaged" with special opportunities for maximum effectiveness.

Kathy Kurz is a partner and Silvio Vazquez is a consultant in the enrollment management consulting firm Scannell & Kurz, Inc. They can be reached via the firm's website,