Colleges and universities already reward high performance with student merit scholarships; now, they can also help shape and encourage that performance with raise.me, a website college-bound students can use as early as ninth grade to see how their achievements can translate to scholarship dollars.
The "micro-scholarships," as raise.me calls them, vary by the institutions that have chosen to participate. Students build scholarships when they create an account and develop a portfolio of achievements by adding their courses, grades and activities each semester.
For example, taking an AP or IB course will earn a student micro-scholarships ranging from $200 at Tulane University to $1250 at Lewis and Clark College. An A grade in a core course earns from $85 at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell to $1000 at Marist College.
There are also micro-scholarships for perfect attendance, extra-curricular activities, sports participation and leadership positions; and for attending college fairs, receptions, campuses and summer programs.
Raise.me says these "bite-sized goals" clear a path to college by teaching teens what schools value; encouraging their incremental efforts with positive reinforcement; and most significantly for many, showing them that their college dreams are financially viable.
Since each school sets their own criteria, students can follow a favorite school on raise.me to view how it values specific achievements.
Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina, for example, awards micro-scholarships of $200 for each year of perfect attendance; $250 for each AP course; $1000 for an A grade in a core course; $1000 for a campus visit to Methodist; and more.
Methodist's Dean of Admissions, Jamie Legg, says, "Showing students expectations up front and giving them small, achievable goals to reach them breaks down this big thing - college scholarships - into smaller pieces along the way and shows students exactly how they can achieve the end goal.
"The concept is something that I was on board with from the get-go."
Students are on board, as well.
"Student response has been overwhelmingly positive," says Shagran Hassan, Vice-President at raise.me. "It's empowering for students when they can see the concrete connection between grades and college.
"Even under-motivated students get excited when they see their achievements recognized," Hassan notes. "Our students also like getting micro-scholarships for things they do outside of school, such as volunteering and playing sports."
Happily, the micro-scholarships are retroactive. Students can add previous accomplishments at any point up to the first semester of senior year.
The micro-scholarships are also retroactive in another sense: whenever a new college joins raise.me, students who have filled in their portfolios will automatically be given micro-scholarships from that college.
In fact, says Hassan, that's part of the fun: participating schools continue to be added, so when students sign in they may see they've earned new scholarships based on earlier achievements.
Raise.me also makes achievement fun by letting students link their account to social media, where they can share their progress and receive positive reinforcement from their own community.
The premise is that motivating teens to prepare for college success through a fun, informative and clear platform, rather than through vague admonitions ("Get good grades!") and anxiety inducing pressure ("Take advanced courses!") is a better way to help create, encourage and support a college-bound culture.
It also reduces anxiety for teens when they can forge connections with colleges early. Raise.me says students will "get the inside scoop" on their favorite colleges and receive invitations to events, which can all help make the admissions process seem a little less intimidating.
In turn, colleges and universities benefit, too. Most schools are already awarding merit money; this provides an additional way to attract interest in their campuses and expand their pool of qualified applicants from all backgrounds.
It's definitely a great way to promote Methodist University, says Dean Legg, but attracting students "is really just icing on the cake."
A first generation college student, Dean Legg found the college admissions process overwhelming. "I didn't know where to start or what scholarship programs were looking for. It was confusing.
"I think that breaking scholarships down into these micro-scholarships, allowing students to see a running tally of their scholarship dollars earned, linking the student's achievements with their social media accounts so they can share them with their world and giving students clear, attainable goals will ultimately help motivate some students to achieve more.
"I believe in what raise.me is doing."
Corporate sponsors also believe in raise.me, which earned the most prize money ever awarded during the 2013 Milken-Penn GSE Education Plan Competition at the University of Pennsylvania; and was a winner of the 2012 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation College Knowledge Challenge with Facebook, a contest to “build pathways to college, build peer groups for in-coming college students and assist with college admission and securing financial aid” by leveraging social networking.
“Social networking sites," stated Stacey Childress, Deputy Director of Education for the Gates Foundation, "…are emerging as critical to students, and low-income students especially, to build social capital outside the boundaries of their neighborhoods. They feel more connected and are more likely to stay in school.”
Teachers and counselors have already been resourceful about using teens' connections with technology to encourage a college-bound culture at their schools and community-based organizations; and, in fact, educators have been enthusiastic supporters of raise.me since its beginning, says Hassan.
A downloadable starter kit from the raise.me website will orient educators to the program. The starter kit includes a step-by-step classroom guide to use with their students and a letter for parents, who can help keep their teens on track.
An important point made to parents is that the privacy controls on raise.me give students "complete control over their information." Students will select the schools they want to correspond with; and will make their own decision about where they will ultimately apply. If a student is admitted to and plans to attend a raise.me college, they can then "cash-in their micro-scholarships" for that school.
"Everyone feels that the path to college is unaffordable, confusing, and pressure-filled for too many students and parents," says Hassan. "Raise.me tackles all three of those pain points in a way that is simple, fun and really helps students."