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University offers rewarding path to financial aid

July 1, 2016
savings jar labeled COLLEGE with money inside(CC BY 2.0 photo / Flickr user

Paula Guerra ’20 says she was “terrified” when she started applying to colleges.

“I knew the amount of money tuition was,” she says. “But getting help from really helped. It all adds up.”

The Douglas, Arizona native will enter Rochester this fall as a biochemistry major, and with $3,900 per year taken off her tuition through, an online platform that offers “micro scholarships” to college-bound high school students based on school and personal achievements.

Rochester was one of ten “Innovation Partners” when the company was founded in 2014, and now more than 150 colleges participate.

Guerra cut her tuition costs by taking Advanced Placement courses, organizing a walkathon to raise money for cancer patients, and tutoring young students in math and English.

Record an ‘A’? Start a club? Volunteer in the community or visit a college campus? All could net a student hundreds (or thousands) of dollars, which are deducted from tuition costs over four years.

Jonathan Burdick, dean of College admission, was immediately drawn to after meeting founders Preston Silverman, George Kirkland, and Dave Schuman at a higher education conference two years ago.

“My concern was that students in eighth and ninth grade get plenty of financial messages about the wealth celebrities earn, but the more complicated message of going to college on the way to earning a great living incorporates this huge barrier of perceived college costs,” Burdick says. “The idea promised a different message: ‘You’ve already done some things that have earned you scholarship dollars, so the costs are already coming down. Stay in school.’”

Guerra cut her tuition costs by taking Advanced Placement courses, organizing a walkathon to raise money for cancer patients, and tutoring young students in math and English.

Nate Leopold ’20 discovered on the University’s website and was excited to cut his tuition costs by logging his participation in elite soccer programs, his top grades in honors classes, and his work with community service groups.

“You don’t do these things to get money on,” says Leopold, an Atlanta native who plans to major in international relations and play on the men’s soccer team. “But it’s instant gratification to plug in your SAT score or your community service and see money coming in. A dollar saved for my parents is a dollar saved for my parents.”

Jon Burdick

Jonathan Burdick. (University photo / J. Adam Fenster)

Here’s how works:

Students follow colleges that interest them on the platform’s website, similar to following a person on Twitter. They add their achievements and can retroactively input grades, activities, and honors since their freshman year.

For each achievement, a student earns a “micro scholarship” ranging from a few hundred dollars to $1,500. These can be redeemed at a participating college when the student enrolls. If a student’s total earnings are $32,000 at the end of high school, for example, that student receives $8,000 off tuition for four years. The average for participating colleges is $5,000 per year.

“By making the process more transparent, tangible, and motivating for students, we can expand the pool of college-ready students across the country and level the playing field for students from less resourced communities,” says Aneesh Raman, vice president of growth at

Amassing scholarship points from a college doesn’t constitute an offer of admission. But if students are accepted, they receive the credits along with any federal or state grants for which they are eligible.

“In many contexts, it could almost be compared to a social media platform, because students have access to the University portfolio,” says Karime Naime, Rochester’s associate director for recruitment and outreach initiatives for undergraduates. “They can see what type of University we are, what students come here. And once they start following us, they start earning our micro scholarships.”

All activities are self-reported by the students, but if discrepancies are found, students forfeit all scholarship money.

Instead of receiving financial aid at the end of high school, which is often too late to affect students’ college aspirations or choices, enables students to chip away at future tuition costs as early as their freshman year of high school. was founded by friends Preston Silverman, George Kirkland, and Dave Schuman. The San Francisco–based company is funded in part by Facebook and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and charges participating colleges an annual fee to build and manage their micro scholarship program. It has been profiled on CNN, CBS and NPR, and in the New York Times.

About 320,000 high school students (grades 9-12) have signed up on the program’s Web site, and 30,000 follow Rochester—up from 1,400 two years ago.

“It’s grown immensely since we were an inaugural partner,” says Scott Clyde, executive director of College enrollment. “It’s a road map, a path to success.”

Naime says five students from enrolled in the University the first year. That number is expected to approach 30 this fall.

“When I pitched this to a bunch of counselors in New York City, they loved the fact that their younger students could see in ninth grade that college was possible,” says Joe Latimer, the  College’s assistant dean for enrollment diversity and outreach. “That with hard work and dedication, they can get to college. The money situation will take care of itself as long as they behave in certain ways that colleges admire. I think it’s just terrific.”

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