University of Iowa has exclusive on new micro-scholarship offer for first year

UI to pay $5,000 annually, plus $10 per student

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IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa will be the state’s only public university this year to offer high school students “micro-scholarships” through a relatively new tech startup called

That stipulation was included in a contract UI signed with the San Francisco-based organization that incorporated as Raise Labs Inc. in 2013 — the same year it won prize money through an entrepreneurial challenge co-hosted by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Facebook.

According to a contract UI signed with Raise Labs on Dec. 1, the institution would be granted “exclusivity among public institutions in the State of Iowa for one year.” Some of the thousands of Iowa high school students introduced to the micro-scholarship platform Wednesday said they hope more of the state’s institutions participate — expanding their options for where they can use money they earn.

“It would be nice if other larger universities got involved with it too,” said Madison Barmore, 17, a junior at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids.

University of Northern Iowa Financial Aid and Scholarships Director Joyce Morrow told The Gazette the platform is “intriguing” and UNI is looking at future scholarship possibilities.

“Money is always an issue, and we are looking at the resources available to UNI in order to participate,” she said.

Iowa State University spokesman John McCarroll said his institution considered the program but decided, “it doesn’t fit our strategies for recruitment and financial aid.”

“We have strategically developed our scholarship program so that it best supports our enrollment goals,” he said. “As the land-grant university for Iowa, access for all qualified, resident students is a priority.”

The platform works by allowing eligible students to create profiles and log accomplishments — like getting good grades, participating in extracurricular activities, volunteering. Each accomplishment earns them dollar awards, like $75 for perfect attendance or $100 for taking four years of the same foreign language.

Students can earn up to $1,200 toward UI tuition, which officials said will come in addition to other scholarships and financial aid they might receive. More than 100 other private and public institutions across the country — including five privates in Iowa — also offer scholarships through the platform, although each school has varying requirements and award totals.

Students lose the money if they don’t go to one of the participating schools, but UI officials said the tool benefits everyone who signs up by better preparing them for the rigors of college.

The university only is offering the scholarship opportunity to one school district in each of Iowa’s 99 counties that has the highest percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch.

UI officials said they’ll assess the program’s success after a four-year pilot phase.

According to the UI’s contract with Raise Labs, the company will provide UI with a list of the students “following” the university via the scholarship platform, along with the students’ contact information, demographic data, and academic achievements.

Conversely, UI must provide Raise Labs information about students on the scholarship platform who applied, were admitted, and ultimately enrolled.

Although school districts participating in the scholarship initiative don’t have to pay for their involvement, the contract requires the university to pay Raise Labs $5,000 a year, plus $10 per student who submits a micro-scholarships to the institution.

Some educators and analysts nationally have raised concerns around the model, calling it an “indirect marketing scheme.”

“ is making money because the colleges pay for this, and colleges are making money in new applicants,” said Steve Nelson, head of the Calhoun School in Manhattan who has written on education-related topics for publications like The Huffington Post.

The university, according to the contract, has the discretion to fulfill the micro-scholarships as part of, or separate from, other financial aid packages. Nelson voiced concern with those types of stipulations, questioning whether the earned dollars really are separate from other financial aid packages.

“There is no evidence the accumulated dollars actually add to what a student might have received in a total aid package,” Nelson wrote in a Huffington Post blog last month.

UI officials responded by saying their goal is to make college more accessible to students.

“So students who qualify for other need- or merit-based scholarships can use those in addition to the scholarships,” according to a UI statement.

The UI contract with Raise Labs indicates scholarship commitments are meant to be applied “evenly over four years of undergraduate education,” and UI officials confirmed the scholarship money is divided over eight semesters — or four, if a student attends community college first.

That, according to the contract, leaves the university to decide how to apply the credit to students who complete their education in other increments. And the university “may suspend its fulfillment of a student’s remaining micro-scholarships if the student is not enrolled full-time or does not maintain the (university’s) minimum GPA requirements,” according to the contract.

Aside from questions around what’s driving the scholarship platform, Nelson raised concern with what he called the “monetizing” of student choices. Instead of letting students explore their academic interests and pursue avenues that foster curiosity and joy, he said, they increasingly are being pushed toward a boxed-in definition of success.

This, Nelson said, is another way of “adding fuel to the already hot fire” of college competition.

“This program is driving what is already an unnecessarily stressful process,” he said.

UI officials on Thursday reiterated the goal of the program, which is to encourage students to take rigorous courses and get involved in school activities while saving money.

“Even if they ultimately decide not to attend the University of Iowa, participating students will be better prepared for success at any postsecondary institution,” according to a UI statement.

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