Strategic Plan Success: Students receive 99.9% of scholarships – an SDSU record

For the first time, SDSU has distributed nearly every dollar of scholarship funds available to students. The next scholarship application period opens on March 11.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024
The SDSU Aztec Scholarships portal proactively matches them with prospective scholarship opportunities for which they qualify. (SDSU Photo)
The SDSU Aztec Scholarships portal proactively matches students with prospective scholarship opportunities for which they qualify. (SDSU Photo)

It was during a meeting in 2018 to explore and analyze student financial aid data that Rose Pasenelli, whose team oversees financial aid and scholarships at San Diego State University, was given a new transformational charge.

For years, the annual percentage of available scholarship funds disbursed to SDSU students teetered in the 60-70% range. Commonly, universities do not reach 100%, as individual scholarship funds generally have restrictive parameters for who can qualify. However, in exploring the data, SDSU President Adela de la Torre tasked Pasenelli with identifying every available solution to significantly improve that percentage to ensure more dollars in support of students. 

The team had a multifaceted challenge: they were using an outdated system for managing aid that made it difficult to match students to all possible qualified scholarships; there was not a clear structure to review and update scholarship agreements; and, students often found the application process cumbersome. 

Following a number of improvements implemented through the university’s strategic plan, Pasenelli and her team reached a 99.9% scholarship utilization rate for the 2023-24 academic year – the highest recorded level in SDSU history. 

“We were truly provided the flexibility and the resource to imagine new creative solutions that would directly change the lives of our students – and that is what makes everything we have created all the more meaningful,” said Pasenelli, SDSU’s associate vice president of Student Financial Resources. 

“Our students are everything to us, and it is our calling to remove what is one of the most significant barriers to a college degree: money,” Pasenelli said.

“But that is just one important piece of the story. The other is that we have been able to quickly adapt and evolve while our university is also seeing greater student retention and success – largely because of this type of work happening in collaboration all over campus,” she added. 

In the years since that 2018 meeting, and through the We Rise We Defy: Transcending Borders, Transforming Lives strategic plan, Pasenelli and her team, along with university partners, have done the following: 

  • The university phased out its legacy system and onboarded a centralized enterprise system, SDSU Aztec Scholarships. For the 2024/25 academic year, the portal opens on March 11, and students will be invited to apply online.

  • The application process was simplified, and undergraduate and graduate students now only need to submit one application. The SDSU Aztec Scholarships system proactively matches them with prospective scholarship opportunities for which they qualify.

  • The financial aid and scholarship team was restructured. The SDSU Scholarship Office is now an independent unit led by Kari Hooker, scholarship director, and both lead and support scholarship officers were hired.

  • The scholarship aid team and University Relations and Development formed a partnership to collaborate on fund management projects. 
    The University Scholarship Committee (USC) was created and, in the first year of being formed, reviewed more than 700 scholarships that were then available to students to verify and update agreements and criteria for qualifying, when necessary. 

This academic year, SDSU awarded more than 2,250 scholarships totaling more than $5.7 million to students. 

“Given the diversity and sheer number of scholarships available to our students, this is an amazing accomplishment by the staff,” said de la Torre. Since arriving at SDSU in 2018, de la Torre has established three endowments with her husband, to include the $250,000 President Adela de la Torre and Stephen Bartlett Student Financial Assistance Endowment. 

SDSU doctoral candidate Lily Astete Vasquez said she was influenced by the work of College of Engineering professor Natalie Mladenov, the William E. Leonhard Jr. Endowed Chair, during her undergraduate studies. Mladenov directs SDSU’s Water Innovation and Reuse Lab (WIRLab) and conducts research on sustainable water and sanitation technologies.

Focused on environmental engineering, Vasquez plans to continue research to promote access to clean water and safe sanitation for people in developing regions after she graduates. Given her academic work and research, she is the recipient of the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists (ARCS) Foundation Award, the San Diego Chapter of Women in Defense Scholarship as well as the Preston Lowrey Memorial Scholarship. 

“Scholarships have been beneficial for me because they boost my confidence by knowing that there are others who believe in the impact of my research and my academic merit,” Vasquez said.

“They also assist with financial independence, as the intensive process of performing research has limited the time I have available for outside employment and have provided me with a network of incredibly encouraging mentors that have supported me throughout my journey.”

Kari Hooker, director of scholarships in the SDSU Scholarship Office, said she and her team take “honor” in being able to support so many students year after year. 

“Our team's passion to make a difference in students' lives is the fundamental core of our purpose, and we understand the significant impact that scholarships can have on students' lives,” Hooker said.

 “Maximizing funds ensures that more students can benefit from these opportunities. This, along with our responsibility to be good stewards of donors' generous donations, motivates us to go full steam ahead every application cycle,” she said. 

Given the amount of aid SDSU provides, 64% of SDSU students received some form of financial aid in fall 2023 and, of the class of 2023, 72% completed their degrees without taking out any student loans. 

“With the rising cost of education and the overall cost of living, it must be our priority to both secure additional scholarship dollars and to match those dollars with every qualifying student so that money is not a barrier to a degree,” de la Torre said. 

“From the perspective of our students, this makes higher education more accessible and affordable, reduces stress and also recognizes their hard work, achievements and unique experiences.” 

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