Maximizing Scholarship Allocation for Students with High Financial Need


  • Martha McGivern, PhD | Director, Study Abroad, DePaul University

This article reports on a case study of data-driven decision-making around scholarship allocation. It outlines one institution’s method and suggests it can be applied across institutions to maximize available scholarship resources, specifically for students with high financial need.

In considering how to allocate funding to increase accessibility among students with high financial need, institutions may wonder: 1) How do scholarships affect the rate of study abroad participation among Pell-eligible students? 2) Based on that, what is the most effective allocation of finite scholarship funds, i.e., how many awards and at what value?

DePaul University tracks participation rates among scholarship award recipients and makes annual allocation decisions based on that data. This paper focuses on data from the last three years through which the institution eliminated the participation gap between Pell-eligible and non-Pell students.

Literature Review

Study abroad scholarships are not the singular solution to access for students with high financial need. Funding is not necessarily sustainable (Gordon, 2018), and scholarships do not address other key factors students weigh as they consider study abroad (West, 2019; Salisbury et al., 2009). Cost, however, is the number one reason students cite for not going abroad (Diversity Abroad, 2017), so scholarship administration is key to reducing that barrier. Large funders like the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program , Fund for Education Abroad , and many education abroad providers, colleges, and universities award scholarships to increase access among students with high financial need.

Little research shows how effective study abroad scholarships are in supporting study abroad access or how institutions can best leverage funding. Whatley (2017) found that grant aid (not loans) increased the chance of participation among low-income students. In a more complex study, Whatley and Clayton (2020) found that low-income students who received need-based grants were 50-71% more likely to study abroad than their peers with similar financial barriers. But how much funding do students need?


DePaul University in Chicago is a large private, Catholic, urban institution with a history and mission of providing education access to marginalized populations. The current first-year class is 51% students of color, 41% first-generation (DePaul University, 2023), and 34% Pell-eligible (Dickman et al., 2023).

DePaul University Study Abroad maintains quarterly spreadsheets of scholarship data, including awards offered, financial-need rankings (per FAFSA), student demographics, and program details. Spreadsheets were combined across academic years 2021-22, 2022-23, and 2023-24 (through present) and filtered for key data.

The sample was limited to undergraduate students accepted to institutionally sponsored study abroad programs within the timeframe, n = 2063. Charts were created to illustrate the following data points:

  • Scholarship award type: “large” (90% of non-tuition costs up to $5,000), “small” (25% of non-tuition costs up to $1,000), or “no award”
  • Participation: whether or not the accepted student confirmed and ultimately participated in the program
  • Financial need: “Pell-eligible” or “non-Pell”
  • Program length: “short-term” (1-3 weeks) or “term-long” (quarter/semester/academic year-length)

Table 1. Key data points, compiled

Participation rates were then calculated across the variables, including financial need, scholarship award type, and program length.

Results and Discussion

As expected, students offered scholarships participate in study abroad programs at higher rates than those without awards. Those differences are further pronounced among students with high financial need and at higher award values to a certain extent.

Two specific findings can be applied to maximize study abroad scholarship allocation:

  1. “Small” awards were associated with increased participation rates among Pell-eligible students

  2. Participation rates varied by program length

Small Awards: A Good Value

“Small” awards make a difference in study abroad participation among students with high financial need and allow institutions to spread limited funds across more students. See Table 2 for participation rates across financial need and award types.

Table 2. Participation rates by financial need and award type

When Pell-eligible students were not awarded scholarships, most did not participate in study abroad, only 33%. When granted “small” awards, they participated at a rate of 71%. “Small” awards were usually $1,000, a relatively small amount of funding for this impact.

Pell-eligible students awarded larger values participated at an even higher rate, 89%. “Large” awards averaged $3,583, so those were more expensive for a less dramatic impact.

Program Length Considerations

Participation rates for term-long study abroad programs (traditional quarter/semester/academic year-length) were lower across both financial need levels and award types, but they follow a similar pattern.

Very few Pell-eligible students participated in their term-long study abroad programs without a scholarship (32%). The participation rate increased by 28% among those who received small awards and an additional 14% for those who received large awards. Students considering a semester or academic year-long program need to consider degree progress, time away from loved ones, and competing opportunities on campus. Perhaps their decision-making process (Salisbury et al., 2009) includes more factors despite the established benefits of longer duration programs on particular outcomes like language acquisition, intercultural competence, and personal growth (DeLoach, 2021; Dwyer, 2004).

Using this Data

DePaul University used this data to allocate scholarship funds. Based on the finding that “small” awards are associated with much higher rates of participation, DePaul allocated 75% of scholarship funds to awards up to $1,000 each. The remaining 25% of funds were allocated as “large” awards to support a smaller number of students with nearly full financial coverage.

Based on the finding that overall participation rates differ by program length, DePaul University separated scholarship allocations by program length. The objective was to ensure that students were awarded funds for the type of program that met their goals, financially and otherwise. A new category of “medium” awards ($2,500) was also created for term-long program students to bridge the gap between the “small” ($1,000) and “large” ($5,000) categories.


This case study provides two key contributions. First, it presents a feasible method of using data to make decisions about scholarship allocation. Institutions and funding organizations can track participation rates among students at various award levels and program types to determine how to maximize finite scholarship resources. Combining and sharing this data further across the field could lead to developing standards in study abroad scholarship funding, maximizing resources more broadly.

Second, it shows that Pell-eligible students at one institution who received relatively small scholarships participated in study abroad at more than double the rate of those without awards. That data can be considered by other institutions and organizations as they plan scholarship allocations with limited budgets.


DePaul University. (2023, October 24). Update on 2023 Fall Census.

DeLoach, S. B., Kurt, M. R., Olitsky, N. H. (2021). Duration matters: Separating the impact of depth and duration in study abroad programs. Journal of Studies in International Education, 25(1), 100-118.

Dickman, C. Holder, L. (2023, December 6). Fall 2023 New Freshman Profile Outcomes. IRMA Brown Bag, DePaul University, Chicago, IL.

Diversity Abroad. (2017, August 6). Covering the Cost of Study Abroad.

Dwyer, M. M. (2004). More is better: The impact of study abroad program duration. Frontiers: The interdisciplinary journal of study abroad,10, 151-163.

Gordon, A. (2018). A way forward: Exploring strategies at multiple levels. In Promoting Inclusion in Education Abroad: A Handbook of Research and Practice (pp. 185-196). Routledge.

Salisbury, M. H., Umbach, P. D., Paulsen, M. B., Pascarella, E. T. (2009). Going global: Understanding the choice process of the intent to study abroad. Research in Higher Education, 50, 119-143.

West, C. (2019). Breaking barriers to study abroad. International Educator, 28 (4), 30-35. Retrieved from

Whatley, M. (2017). Financing study abroad: An exploration of the influence of financial factors on student study abroad patterns. Journal of Studies in International Education, 21(5), 431-449.

Whatley, M., Clayton, A. B. (2020). Study abroad for low-income students: The relationship between need-based grant aid and access to education abroad. Journal of Student Financial Aid (2), 1.
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