How do you put a price on a free resource that serves low-income students? And how do you create a business model to keep that database going while protecting the privacy of the students who rely on it?
EdSurge asked those questions in August 2020 in a story about a college-scholarship database created by a beloved librarian named Gail Schlachter.
Containing nearly 30,000 financial-aid opportunities painstakingly researched over several decades, the database that powered the Reference Service Press book-publishing company faced an uncertain future when Schlachter died in 2015. Faithfully maintained by the librarian’s longtime friend, the database found a new home at an edtech startup, but the company’s leaders weren’t sure how best to use it while sustaining its open-access legacy.
“Where can this thing live digitally so that it’s out of one person’s hands and in the hands of everyone?” asked Drew Magliozzi, CEO and co-founder of the startup, which is now called Mainstay.
The EdSurge story led to an answer. After the article was published, leaders at companies and philanthropies contacted Magliozzi with ideas and offers for putting the scholarship database to use. One corporation offered six figures in cash for it. A nonprofit offered to help Mainstay turn it into a public-facing tool.
When leaders at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and the National Scholarship Providers Association read the story, they realized that Schlachter’s database could improve their joint effort to build an online tool that collects and displays up-to-date data about financial aid opportunities.
“As I was reading it, I was like, ‘We’re about to add thousands and thousands of programs. If Mainstay already has this data and they’re looking for a home for it, why don’t we just bring this on board?’” says Kevin Byrne, senior director, United States, for the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. “It’s just a win-win, it’s a great story, from what she’s developed over the years, and it would short-circuit our timeline to get all those programs listed.”
Called the NSPA Exchange, the tool is available to organizations that provide scholarships, while other entities can request permission to use the data to build their own scholarship-search systems for students to use directly. Among the groups that use the data is College Board, which saw 5 million people visit its online scholarship search tools in 2020.
The Dell Foundation made an offer to Mainstay: For the symbolic sum of $100, it would “buy” the database and transfer it to the National Scholarship Providers Association to fuel the Exchange. Mainstay accepted.
“Ultimately we weighed all the options, and we thought about the combination of: What’s good for the business? What’s good for the database? What’s good for the world?” Magliozzi says. “In the long-term interest of doing what was right for students, getting this data out there, and keeping the legacy of what Gail had created alive, it made the most sense.”
One factor that influenced the decision was the fact that the National Scholarship Providers Association has a system for keeping data in the Exchange updated and accurate—a major challenge, since information about scholarship availability, eligibility criteria, award amounts and application deadlines changes frequently.
“The maintenance of the data is as important as the data itself, and if not carefully maintained, it has a half-life,” Magliozzi says. “The real compelling thing about what Kevin pitched to us was, it’s not just a database, it’s actually a group of people that’s truly committed to making this a sustainable, ongoing and growing initiative.”
No one understands the importance of database maintenance more than Dave Weber, the close friend of Schlachter who has kept her work going, largely by himself, since her death. Under the new arrangement, Weber will work as a paid consultant for the National Scholarship Providers Association as it integrates the database into its Exchange.
“I’m happy about it,” Weber says. “I agree with everybody who is involved with this that this is valuable information, and I want to see it get out.”
Written into the agreement that transferred ownership of the database is what Magliozzi calls the “‘don’t be icky’ clause.” It encourages organizations that use the Exchange “not leverage student data in ways that might betray their privacy or best interest,” he explains, such as by selling it.
“We’re giving this freely so that it can continue to be given freely,” Magliozzi says. “I would hate for students to be tricked into sharing their data and doing something that would be against their best interests while they’re searching for a way to pay for college. That would be a tremendous shame.”
Byrne seconded that sentiment.
“There’s still those scams out there that students and families are really susceptible to. That is not what we wanted this database to be,” he says. “We want it to be a high-quality, curated, really filtered list of those programs who have the students’ interest at heart.”
To that end, leaders at Mainstay, the Dell Foundation and the National Scholarship Providers Association say they plan to monitor the behavior of the organizations that have access to the data to ensure they abide by those high standards. For example, College Board says students who use its scholarship search tool don’t have to opt in to sharing their information for other purposes or services.
One of the ways Schlachter’s data is improving the Exchange stems from the work the librarian did to carefully identify scholarships for sets of people who haven’t always had full access to higher education. That type of personalization—which originally allowed Reference Service Press to publish books specifically for women, people of color and people with disabilities—anticipated the way many people look for information today: through digital search tools that provide individualized results.
“The Native American data and indigenous student [data]—it’s just astronomical. We had very few of those before,” Byrne says. “Military programs and children of military service members is another area that will be completely additional.”
Additionally, the Reference Service Press database contains carefully researched scholarship opportunities that students are unlikely to find if they only rely on a Google search, since many aid providers don’t have websites—or much of an online presence, says Allison Danielsen, senior director of college and career connections at College Board.
“It’s a very hard experience to find scholarships,” says Danielsen, noting that affording college is a top concern for most students. “That’s why the expansion of the database is so great: That’s what students want to see.”
For Weber, helping to give the database a new home feels satisfying after the service he put in while its fate was in limbo.
“I did it partly as a recognition of Gail Schlachter; it was almost in memory of her,” he says. “I’m glad to see this is going to get used.”
Leaders at Mainstay, the Dell Foundation and the National Scholarship Providers Association say they are happy to do their part to give Schlachter’s database new life.
“It’s such a great story. How can you not feel good about all that work over the years and the impact it’s having on students?” Byrne says. “That’s a story we’re hoping to continue to share going forward.”