PHILADELPHIA — Students who are accepted into Penn State University's prestigious honors college get more than academic feathers in their caps. They get $3,500 annual merit scholarships.
But given the tough economic times, the school is making an unusual request: Would parents consider donating that money back?
The fundraising appeal for Schreyer Honors College leans on parents who have not applied for financial aid for their children, encouraging them to share their good fortune with needier students. It appears to be working. The first appeal to 75 families last year raised about $228,000.
"I have not heard of this kind of an approach before," said Lee Andes, president of the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs. "It doesn't surprise me to hear people getting creative."
Penn State's appeal may be unusual, but the economic downturn has forced colleges around the country to rethink a decades-long shift toward using scarce financial aid dollars to lure high-achieving students.
Schools withdrawing from program
Some schools and states have tightened criteria for merit aid or eliminated it altogether to focus on students with the most need. The University of Texas at Austin plans next fall to withdraw from the National Merit Scholarship Program, which relies solely on standardized test scores to choose semifinalists and has been criticized for steering money to students who don't necessarily need it most.
Still, merit aid helps colleges lure top students and improve their rankings and reputations. Penn State is continuing the scholarships but hoping to persuade recipients' parents to return the favor.
Schreyer parents, with administrators' backing, made their first appeal in a letter to other parents as the recession worsened. Students had begun turning to the college for additional financial help; in all, there was more than $1 million in unmet need at this time a year ago, said Dean Christian Brady.
After the success of that campaign, parents this year doubled the number of solicitations, which went out a few weeks ago.
"When you pay that tuition bill, I am asking you to assess whether you 'need' the scholarship and, if you do not, please join me and my husband by making a donation in the amount of the scholarship to the Schreyer Honors College," reads the letter from Kristin Hayes, mother of a junior in the program. "In these challenging economic times, many of our children's fellow Schreyer classmates have significant needs that are becoming increasingly difficult for Schreyer and Penn State to meet."
In a telephone interview, Hayes called the letter a "heartfelt plea" to help those in need.
"These are my daughter's friends and roommates and colleagues," Hayes said. "People help their friends and their neighbors. That's all it's about."
No negative reactions
Hayes, whose husband serves on the Schreyer board, did not write last year's letter but made follow-up phone calls. No parents reacted negatively, even if they declined to make a donation, she said.
Schreyer is the only school at the central Pennsylvania university to use this approach, Brady said. So far this year, 11 responses have raised about $13,000.
He stressed that students do not relinquish their awards.
"The students are not being asked to give up their scholarship. We would never ask that of anybody," he said. "This is to the parents, not the students."
Last fall's campaign yielded about $128,000 in donations plus a $100,000 gift to endow a trustee scholarship. Thirty-four students received a combined $120,000 to help them stay in school.
Brady called the appeal an "unintrusive" way for more affluent families to help defray costs for students with hardships. Annual undergraduate tuition at Penn State ranges from about $13,000 to more than $29,000 depending on a student's year, major and state of residence.
"These are students with very high need," Brady said.
Students chosen based on academics
Schreyer has about 1,750 students, each of whom receives a $3,500 merit scholarship per year. Honors students are chosen based on academic performance, leadership skills, community service and global experience. There were 2,700 applications for 300 freshman slots, Brady said.
Megan Krench, 22, graduated from Schreyer in May — too late to benefit from the appeals — but was thrilled to hear about them nonetheless.
In addition to the merit scholarship, which was only $2,500 annually during her four years, Krench said Schreyer donors helped her enormously over her undergraduate years with research and travel — all to fulfill the college's mission of teaching students global perspective and civic engagement.
"When you're in need, you can sort of turn to the honors college and they'll help you achieve those goals," Krench said.
Krench added that without the base merit scholarship, she would have graduated with $28,000 in student loans instead of $18,000.
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