The first time Conor Weberg took his ACT exam, he scored a 29. So he took it again, and got a 31 out of a possible 36 - and an extra $5,000.
Weberg, a Duluth East High School senior, has earned more than $72,000 through a relatively new online micro-scholarship platform called Raise.me. The money will come from Gustavus Adolphus College if he attends.
Micro-scholarships are awarded for things such as earning A's, perfect attendance and taking advanced classes, and for playing sports, volunteering and visiting the college's campus.
"You can't put in too much," Weberg said of logging accomplishments. "It just adds up in the end."
Weberg is one of 522 East students using the San Francisco-based program, which has only been in existence a few years. The University of Minnesota Duluth paid to join the roster last year, and the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities did last month. Nearly 200 higher education institutions - which set their own standards - take part, with just three in Minnesota.
The idea, said Aneesh Raman, vice president of growth for Raise.me, is to expand college access, especially to first-generation families, students of color and poor students. And the program allows kids to start earning scholarship money in the ninth grade, giving them four years to accumulate promised cash and giving them more certainty about what's attainable. That's different from most scholarship programs, which generally award them at the end of a high school career.
"That's often far too late to impact a student's college ambitions or choices," Raman said, noting most students don't drop out, fall behind or assume college is out of the question at the end. "All of that happens in ninth, 10th or 11th grade."
Colleges vary on what they pay, and which activities or accomplishments they reward, and generally have caps on amounts. At the private, $54,000 per year (total cost) Gustavus, for example, $600 is awarded for each core-subject A, up to $12,600. At UMD, which costs $24,000 a year, an A earns you $40.
Aside from grades and advanced classes - which net the most money - Weberg has earned money from Gustavus for being the trombone section leader in two school bands, for taking part in cross-country running, track and nordic skiing, and for teaching kids to ski.
The ninth-grade start time is key, said Sandra Rich, career center coordinator at East. Recording entries from the start makes it easier to keep track, and kids can know far in advance what kind of award they might be receiving, which helps in the planning process. Weberg got started last year, so he wasn't confronted with choosing too many classes or activities based on what they might earn. Had he started earlier, he said, the program might have influenced some of his choices.
The money is awarded only if the student is accepted into and attends the school offering it, but it's on top of federal and state grants they can apply for. Activities and accomplishments also need to be verifiable. More than half a million students from more than half of the nation's high schools are taking part, Raman said.
Denfeld only has a couple dozen students using Raise.me, as counselors plan to roll out a large push for it this spring. Counselor Geri Saari said it shows students that being involved and having good grades leads to opportunity.
But she hopes students don't use the carrot of money to be the only incentive for joining an activity.
"They need to follow their interests," she said.
So many scholarships are competitive, and demand is high, Rich said, but Raise.me is more about competing against yourself.
"We think it's a wonderful opportunity to engage the students in being proactive in what their future looks like and how they are going to pay for college," Rich said. "It's pretty fun to see a student log on for the first time, put their first A in and have three schools pop up and say they will give anywhere from $40 to $800 for that A."
'A holistic approach'
UMD has more than 14,000 high school students following it on the Raise.me platform, meaning that many kids are plugging their information into the scholarship program's system for that school. Kids can follow and accumulate micro-scholarships from many colleges.
UMD is working to target students who wouldn't otherwise earn a top merit scholarship from the school, which focus on class rank, GPA and ACT scores. While 25 percent of UMD students enter the school with a 3.7 GPA or above, the middle 50 percent have GPAs that range between 3.2 and 3.7, said Mary Keenan, assistant vice chancellor in academic affairs.
"We have a long tradition of providing B and B-plus students with educational and co-curricular experiences that allow them to be successful in college," she said. "And the Raise.me platform is very much aligned with being able to acknowledge those students."
This past fall, through Raise.me, 149 students received anywhere from $300 to $1,500 - which will be annual gifts - who wouldn't have previously received a merit scholarship from UMD. The maximum amount UMD will award is $3,000 per year, or $12,000 total.
While UMD has no restrictions on who can earn money to attend, the University of Minnesota, for example, is focusing on high schools that serve high numbers of students from low-income families. Those include Denfeld, Cherry, Mesabi East, South Ridge, Nashwauk-Keewatin, Mountain Iron-Buhl and Harbor City International School.
Keenan said the program reinforces behaviors associated with a successful college student, and that's appealing to colleges.
"It takes a more holistic approach to awarding scholarships," she said. "I see a lot of benefit in getting students to think beyond their grades and about how they are giving back to their community."
Weberg hopes to become a surgeon, spelling years of higher education and hours of scholarship applications. The fact that Raise.me is free and easy to use helps during the long slog of scholarship season, he said.
Weberg's mother, Cara Weberg, likes seeing in advance what one school has promised, which gives some peace of mind about the whole college application process.
"And they can see their efforts are worth something," she said.
A sampling of colleges and universities awarding Raise Me micro-scholarships:
University of Minnesota Duluth, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., Northland College in Ashland, DePaul University in Chicago, Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, Drake University in Des Moines, Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., Michigan State, University of Denver, Tulane in New Orleans and Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa.