INSPIRED IMPACT™ gives voice to social entrepreneurs and leaders of purpose-driven organizations who are making an impact in their communities, industries, and around the world.
WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO?
My name is Lorii Rabinowitz and I am honored to serve as the CEO of Denver Scholarship Foundation where we work with Denver Public Schools’ (DPS) students on their journeys to and through college completion. We do our work in three parts deeply intertwined with one another: College Access, Scholarship, and College Success.
Our work starts in high school through what we call DSF Future Centers which are onsite at 14 DPS high schools and through which we serve students of 21 DPS high schools directly. In these Future Centers, our DSF College Advisors work with every senior to help them think through what comes next after high school. We work with every senior regardless of whether or not they will ultimately become Scholars and help them figure out what that journey looks like, provide thought partnership and assistance with every piece of that puzzle, so everything from applications to FAFSA completion to selection and enrollment, personal statements, essays, and all that fun stuff. That piece is the college access piece of our work.
Over the course of that work, we introduce the second piece of our model by encouraging students to apply for our DSF Scholarship, which is considered to be a promise-based scholarship. That means that every student who meets our criteria receives our scholarship which is pretty amazingly cool. We awarded about 1,800 Scholarships last year, about $5 million or thereabouts, and the criteria is really straightforward. Students have to attend a DPS high school for four years; they have to attend one of DSF’s 31 in-state technical college, community college, or university partner institutions; they have to apply for 2-3 other scholarships; have a 2.0 GPA or higher; and demonstrate financial need. Our metric there is up to 1.5x Pell eligibility or for students who aren’t eligible to receive federal aid demonstration of free and reduced lunch qualification. So when a student meets those criteria, they get our scholarship, regardless of whether or not there is a DSF Future Center on their campus.
The third part of our model is the success piece, which comes through our partnerships with 31 institutions of higher ed across the state. Those partnerships are recommitted on an annual basis and include both additional gift aid from the institution of higher ed and a dedicated DSF College Advisor or Advisors to work with our Scholars on their campus. On the Auraria campus, we actually have our own staff onsite. So at the three schools on the Auraria campus – CCD, CU Denver, and MSU Denver – we have our own DSF staff, but at each of our other 28 partners across the state, they have dedicated Campus Contacts who work with our students.
Our Scholars are amazing. They’re killing it. They are totally thriving. Currently, about 78% of our DSF Scholars are persisting or have already graduated, which is about 2.5x the national average for the student population with which we’re so lucky to work. One hundred percent of our DSF Scholars grew up in low-income households – as mentioned, that’s one of the requirements for the scholarship. Additionally, 90% of our Scholars are students of color and 74% are first-generation college students. We have an amazing scholar base and we know that it’s our partnership with DPS which allows us to provide the access services, combined with our promise-based scholarship, and our relationships with our 31 Higher Ed partners all come together to give us the opportunity to really be holistic in our approach and work with students truly to and through their journeys.
WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR? WHY DOES THE WORLD NEED YOU?
That is such a good question. We talk about our work as “access, scholarship, and success,” and we really stand for access and success and our services and our scholarships are a delivery vehicle to be able to provide the comprehensive opportunity. We have six core values that we strive to not only live by but do our work by and make sure that everything we do is under that guise. I think the world needs us or our community needs us because we know that there’s more inequity and there are greater gaps, greater disparities more and more year over year. We know from the work that we get to do every day that when students don’t have the kind of access that we are able to provide, that access to opportunity, when those doors aren’t opened in partnership with them, oftentimes they either think those opportunities are impossible to access or in many cases don’t know that those opportunities even exist. When we have conversations with students in high school and say, “What’s your thinking about what comes next after high school?” oftentimes we hear either, “I don’t know. I’m not sure,” or in some cases, “I want to go to college, but I think it’s too expensive,” or, “I don’t know if I have the grades,” or, “I’m not sure if I’ll be successful.” However, the potential is totally there; our students are incredible. So the opportunity to work with them to open those doors is unmatched, especially when it’s a financial barrier that’s at play – to be able to provide not only our scholarship support and wraparound opportunities but also access to packaging through other available resources that students may not know exist. We think collectively about how to financially package a student on their journey to have it be the best financial, academic, and social fit for them, and believe that will provide the greatest opportunity to succeed. They bring the potential, they bring the perseverance and the grit and the commitment and the dedication. It’s about working together to build out the social capital and those connections to access these opportunities.
WHAT IMPACT ARE YOU MAKING?
It’s so interesting, because how lucky are we that we get to be a part of this impact every day? We get to work with our students. It seems kind of unfair that we get to be inspired every day, because our students are so phenomenal and not only grateful and gracious but so accomplished and such amazing, successful individuals that the impact can be seen real-time. We talk a lot about not only the impact on the individual student or Scholar, but also the impact on their families, neighborhoods, and communities and how exciting that is. I mentioned that 74% of our Scholars are the first in their families to go to college. So to see the individual impacts within those families, honestly, both for first-gen and for continuing generation students is so exciting. Every spring we host our graduation event where we invite graduating high school students who are on route to becoming DSF Scholars as well as graduating high school seniors and students, who of course, bring their families. It is the coolest day of the year because we see parents and family members and adult influencers in our students’ lives just beaming with pride and our Scholars beaming with pride. It’s really impactful.
We also think a lot about earning potential for our community because our work specifically addresses the Colorado Paradox, educating and providing opportunities to our own local students who stay in Colorado when they complete college. We work with Denver Public Schools’ students and require students to attend college in Colorado to fulfill their scholarships and receive those wraparound supports, and so we’re really growing our own local talent, with local partnerships. That’s really exciting as well to help boost not only family self-sufficiency but also economic vitality within our own community.
WHAT (OR WHO) INSPIRES YOU TO MAKE THIS IMPACT?
I feel like we’re really fortunate because of the partnerships that we have – with our students and Scholars, our partnerships with the institutions of Higher Ed and with Denver Public Schools, with community members, with our donors, and with each other. There is not a day that goes by that I am also not equally as inspired by our team which is amazingly diverse in terms of not just race and ethnicity, but also backgrounds, life experiences, and perspectives. Our team really works hard to be of service to our Scholars and to our donors and partners and really to each other. We have an incredible culture within our organization, and I’ve never felt so fortunate as to be a part of a team of 60 individuals who have each other’s backs and really will always jump into an opportunity to provide thought partnership, brainstorming, and support. There are stories after stories after stories of the impact that our team has on our students, Scholars, donors, partners, etc., but to see the impact they have on one another and the inspiration that everyone provides to each other is pretty extraordinary.
WHAT’S YOUR VISION, YOUR BIG DREAM, FOR THE ORGANIZATION AND THE IMPACT YOU WANT TO MAKE?
We would love to come to the day that access is available for all Denver students. Access to opportunity regardless of – and in celebration of the inclusion of – background, experience, income, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious preference, you name it – that every student has equal access to opportunity and that financial barriers are out of the way and any other obstacle can be addressed to generate the kind of success that we’ve seen with our Scholars. Because as proud as we are to be able to serve 1,800 Scholars a year, which is amazing, we know that there are a lot more students in Denver and surrounding communities and across the country and we never want our next generation to be limited.
WHAT RESOURCES DO YOU NEED TO MAKE THAT DREAM COME TRUE?
A variety. Of course, financial investment is always key, but it’s also continuing to grow our strategy around the human resources, in addition to financial resources, that we are able to provide our students. We are additionally addressing technological resources such as how do we stay in the best communication we can with our students and Scholars? Students have to meet deadlines to receive our scholarship, how do we make that easier? We think we’re making it as easy as possible, but we know there are technology gaps that we still need to address.
It’s interesting because we have very generous donors who want to invest in wraparound supports or programs and that’s great because the more programs and supports we provide, the more applicants we have applying for our scholarships and we have to make sure that those numbers all balance out. So the resources we need are both human and financial at the same time because our scholarships always include those wraparound supports, and the more supports we provide, the more applicants we have for the scholarships. It’s critical that we are ever mindful of the importance of the direct correlation between philanthropic investment and dedicated program supports to ensure we are inviting both on a consistent basis.
WHAT CHALLENGES ARE YOU FACING?
Unfortunately, the funding for higher ed in Colorado is near the bottom (I think we’re 47th in the country in higher ed) and so in many cases, higher education becomes more and more financially unattainable. We feel really fortunate that we get to work with students in a way that we can help them package themselves. The majority of our students graduate with little to no debt and/or the kind of earning potential that would allow them to repay loans. We provide guidance, in partnership with our partners of higher ed through their financial aid offices and their support services teams, and work together to think about how to best financially package our students so that they go in with the knowledge of, “If I have to take out a loan, what’s the best loan to take, and how long do I have to pay it off?” Or, “What if I don’t need to get a loan and I can secure a work-study job instead?”
As higher ed increases in cost, it creates more of a barrier so we try to think creatively and our partners in higher ed are phenomenally creative in trying to think about how they can provide additional support for students. Truly, we couldn’t do this work without our partnerships – both in higher ed and with other scholarship focused nonprofit organizations. We do this work the best when we do it together. Certainly, there’s no one entity, organization, or institution that can do this by themselves, so we continue to think collectively and collaboratively of how we as a group can be of the best service to our students.
We come into conversations with students, families, and donors all the time who say, “Oh, I’m hearing about this student debt, student debt, student debt.” If students aren’t set up for the success from the beginning and enter into a higher ed institution that either has a higher tuition than what their earning potential would necessarily be able to support or puts them into a different kind of financial, academic or social unfit, the student either stops out and doesn’t complete, thus not having the credentials for higher earning potential, or does complete, but their earning potential isn’t in line with whatever debt was acquired, which then creates higher and higher student debt. We are constantly thinking about how we help our students on a grander scale think about what the best way is to go about this process.
We have been working with our corporate partners to help students experience what it looks like to have a career in XYZ industry – whether that’s a field trip or a career panel or a mentorship opportunity or an internship. We have a variety of different ways in which we started working with our corporate partners to provide that kind of exposure as well because it’s our core mission to work with students to and through completion, but then during the course of that journey we also want to help them think through the question of, “Now what? Once I complete, what will I be pursuing?” We help them think about what it will be like to work in their field of study or how to be competitive for a summer internship. We hear a lot in Colorado about the talent pipeline shortage and what we should be doing to grow our own talent. And, we hear from students all the time, “I’m interested in an internship” and/or “I’m interested in thinking about what my career pathway looks like upon completion of my certificate associate degree or bachelor’s degree.” So we’ve begun to help connect those dots over the last year or so to start making some of those connections and bridging some of those gaps as well.
WHAT WORDS OF ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHER LEADERS LOOKING TO MAKE AN IMPACT?
I think my best piece of advice, and it’s something that I live by and have been so grateful that I do, is to work in collaboration with our teams and our partners. They’re really smart, and when we have an opportunity to learn from each other and to flatten our organization in a way where everyone’s voice matters, has impact, and has influence, we all do a much better job. We are a much better service to, in our case, our students, our partners or donors, but I also would say in any practice, that the more we can invite feedback from one another and leverage each other’s expertise, the better we’ll all be.
WHAT’S ONE THING YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT THE IMPORTANT WORK YOU’RE DOING?
I think that the comprehensive approach is really the road to success. Working with our students beginning in high school and going to and through college completion, working with DPS, working with our higher ed partners, working with other nonprofit organizations in town, has really led to incredible success for our students. I want others to know that our students and Scholars are rocking it and that the power of belief in another individual is tremendously valuable. If we all allow for opportunity to be possible, the world would be a better place.
HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT YOU OR YOUR CAUSE?
I feel like the more opportunities we have to celebrate our DSF Scholars and highlight the work of our amazing team members and our partners throughout the community, the more people will know about us and will support the work that we’re doing. That can manifest itself in a variety of different ways. We actively recruit volunteers and are obviously always welcoming of philanthropic contributions and additional partnerships. All of those pieces and parts come together and really are steered through visibility and the opportunity to share our story and celebrate our Scholars.
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