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Scholarship process to be improved for Class of 2015

SOLON– Though school is out for summer and fall classes seem yet too distant to worry about, now is the right time to be thinking about college finances.
In addition to giving a first-year college scholarship to all Solon graduates who apply, Solon Dollars for Scholars awards Continuing Education Scholarships (CES) to Solon alumni in their second, third and fourth years of college. This summer, the volunteer organization has $32,000 in its CES coffers for those current college enrollees. The deadline for this year’s CES applications is June 15.
The application process has changed from previous years, as did the process for Solon’s 2014 graduates applying for other local scholarships. Dollars for Scholars board president Linda Lee wants to make sure all students understand the changes and take advantage of the opportunity to apply.
“We recognize it’s new,” said Lee. “It was absolutely brand new to us, too, and we didn’t have a good understanding of how time-consuming the process would be.”
Solon High School staff have assisted graduating seniors in the scholarship application process for years, serving as the conduit between students and the various organizations who gift scholarships, according to Solon High School Principal Nathan Wear, and that assistance continued this year. Beginning in the fall, high school principal secretary Kelly Foster sends letters to all local groups interested in giving scholarships to students, Wear said. 
“We mail letters, make phone calls, and email the various groups. We explain that we have a common application form and, if interested, groups can choose to use our form or submit their own application to use. Our office has continued to facilitate the application process,” Wear wrote in an email communication Monday.
However, the district’s role changed somewhat this spring. Instead of the school collecting applications and photocopying them for scholarship groups, students were required to send applications directly to the organization themselves.
“We did this for two reasons,” Wear explained. “First, we did not want to assume liability for losing something or misplacing an application. Most kids applied for several scholarships; along with reference letters, application forms, and transcripts, the paperwork with nearly 140 seniors was too much for our office to handle. Second, we felt that students would have better ownership if they took the initiative to apply and send in materials to the local organizations themselves.”
In addition to the school district’s changes, the local Dollars for Scholars chapter was faced with a decision of committing itself to the national umbrella entity Scholarship America program or severing its ties and becoming completely independent. Solon Dollars for Scholars chose to stay with the national agency and take advantage of its benefits.
“Scholarship America helps with our website, they help with donations and marketing and they assist with federal tax reporting,” said Lee. “All those things keep our operating costs lower so we can use the money for scholarships for students.”
Scholarship America is also a regular source of information for what is going on at the federal level, Lee added.
“I try to Tweet that out to everyone, to keep students connected to what is going on nationally; things like the FASFA, scholarships, loan management, and other information.”
But staying with Scholarship America meant the local chapter had to scrap its former application process and adopt a new online application procedure, which was more rigorous, occasionally confusing and more time-consuming than in years past.
“Two of our members created profiles and actually filled out the online application, as a trial, so we could understand what it was like,” said Lee. “We recognized there were things that could have been left blank.” For local first-year scholarships, Lee said, only the very basic information was actually required, but some students didn’t realize that, and may have become discouraged by the lengthy online application. An 11th-hour technological glitch in the Scholarship America application site also inaccurately notified some families that applications were incomplete, causing more confusion.
Wear also acknowledged that some families struggled through the online process.
“What was unclear was that if students wanted to be considered for national scholarships, they had to enter all kinds of family financial data,” Wear said. “The local scholarship did not need this information and I think that was confusing to some families.”
Several local scholarship committees anecdotally reported having a lower number of applicants this spring than ever before, a contradiction to the fact that the 2014 graduating class was the largest in school history, at 143 students. Dollars for Scholars received 95 applications, or 66 percent; down from the usual 72 to 75 percent of graduates who apply.
It wasn’t for a lack of communication, though.
Dollars for Scholars representatives held a general meeting with students, met with school staff to confirm steps in the process, and communicated information directly to students via Twitter, Facebook and their website. School staff created a list serve of all the deadlines, application materials, and addresses for students and families to send scholarships, and sent a mass email to students and parents with pertinent website links and other details. The high school office staff announced regular bulletins about application deadlines as well.
Solon resident Rick Jedlicka is a parent of a 2014 graduate, and serves as a member of the scholarship selection committee for one of the most prestigious local scholarships available, granted by the Vislisel Family Foundation. Jedlicka recognized this year’s application process was not as smooth as students may be used to, but there were several factors at play, he noted, and ultimately, it’s up to students to dig in and get applications completed and turned in.
“I honestly believe, this year more than ever, the students who took the time to work through the flawed system were rewarded for their efforts,” said Jedlicka. “It is sad that some students may have given up, yet maybe that is a life lesson in itself. Yes, there were issues with the application, but given the guarantee of the Dollars for Scholars money and the potential for other awards, I feel the kids should be required to put forth some effort.”
Wear agreed.
“Our kids are fortunate to have such great support from the community. We will continue to help them get the information they need about scholarship opportunities,” said Wear. “However, the application process, collections of reference letters, and sending the materials to the scholarship committee is the responsibility of the individual student and family.”
And because each scholarship-granting entity also has its unique selection criteria and process, Jedlicka added, it would be difficult to create a single overseer of all entities involved.
“It would defeat the intent and the personal nature of a majority of these gifts,” Jedlicka said, a characteristic that sets Solon apart in its support of graduates.
“The sense of pride I feel at Senior Awards night, watching our community come forward and place such a high level of importance on higher education and lifelong learning is remarkable,” said Jedlicka. “It is rare to hear of other communities that annually support students at this tremendous level. That’s all the more reason we need to make sure the system is seamless for those dedicated students who understand the importance and magnitude of the awards.”
To that end, Dollars for Scholars board members have already initiated conversations with Matt Townsley, the school district’s Director of Instruction and Technology, to improve next year’s application process. Wear said he, Foster and Townsley plan to meet with all local scholarship organizations in the fall to better coordinate and disseminate information.
Linda Lee is confident the procedures can be refined.
“My hope is that, through working with Mr. Townsley, we can coordinate with other groups to make the process a little more whole,” said Lee. “And I think we can do that.”
Meanwhile, Wear offered some advice for parents of future graduates.
“Talk to students about the value of any amount of financial contribution they might receive,” said Wear. “While $250 may not sound like a lot of money when college tuition is tens of thousands of dollars, every little bit helps.”