six happy graduates
© Ian Johns
Scholarships in Germany

Recognizing and Nurturing Talent

Targeted talent development makes it possible for gifted young people to bring their bright ideas to life for the good of society. Nevertheless, many scholarship recipients still have to justify the kind of support they receive. The dedication shown by former recipients, however, proves that this support makes a lasting difference – far beyond the length of the study program and the individual recipients.

According to estimates by the German Federal Statistical Office, the number of people in the country aged under 20 will have fallen to 10.4 million in 2050 – just half as many as in 1970. This means a decrease in the number of those whose fresh ideas stimulate urgently needed innovation within society, making it all the more important to lend the dwindling group of potential students a helping hand. Monetary support is especially important. After all, financial issues are top of the list of reasons why able high school graduates do not go on to college. This is where talent development in Germany comes in – in the form of scholarships, which currently benefit around four percent of all students enrolled at college.

“My scholarship changed my life,” says Susanna Krüger today. As the first member of her family who was able to go to college, she studied at Harvard Kennedy School, where she focused on change processes in public-sector organizations, thanks to a McCloy scholarship. She is now the CEO of the German arm of nongovernmental organization Save the Children, the world’s largest independent organization campaigning for children’s rights. She uses many of the contacts she made during her scholarship to increase the effectiveness of her humanitarian work.

The current CEO of Google Germany also gained experience in the United States as a student: “The Haniel scholarship that enabled me to study in the United States played a key role in terms of my subsequent work at an American firm,” sums up Philipp Justus, He received great support from trusted professors and contacts when he was planning his semester abroad and applying for internships. “My studies at Williams College and Northwestern University had a big influence on me,” explains Justus, now aged 47.

The experiences of these two executives are prime examples of the importance of supporting responsible and talented individuals: without the financial, specialist, and personal support that they received, they probably would not have been able to chart and pursue their course with such determination.

Sibylle Kalmbach was only able to complete her year of study in the United States with the help of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). “Alongside the financial safety net, the scholarship program gave me encouragement and confirmation. This is incredibly motivating for a young person,” she enthuses, almost 25 years later. Having earned a doctorate in biology, she is now the Deputy General Secretary of the German Academic Scholarship Foundation and has specialized in the scholarship situation in Germany for many years.

Three Pillars of Talent Development

The first pillar in terms of scholarships for highly motivated and qualified students in Germany takes the form of the thirteen talent development organizations (Begabtenförderwerke). There are thirteen of them, as they are supposed to reflect the diversity of German society: some of them are closely associated with political parties or religious traditions, whereas others have a business- or trade union-related focus. The German Academic Scholarship Foundation is the only one of these bodies that is independent in terms of political/religious beliefs and world view. The primary source of funding for these thirteen institutions is the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, which provided them with just under €233 million in 2014.

The second pillar of talent development in Germany has only been around since 2011, but already plays a pivotal role: the support offered under the Stipendienprogramm-Gesetz (German Scholarship Programs Act) is better known as the Deutschlandstipendium and is available from most higher education institutions in Germany, with each institution determining their own application process. Half of the funding is provided by the German Federal Government, and the other half comes from private donors who the higher education institutions have to find themselves. In 2015, almost one percent of all enrolled students received funding under the program, which equates to €300 a month for a maximum of one year.

In recent years, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research has poured more and more money into these two pillars. While the talent development organizations awarded some 13,400 scholarships in 2005, 2015 saw some 56,000 students benefit from scholarships funded at federal level (including the Deutschlandstipendium).

© Dominic Tschoepe

The McCloy Scholarship Program makes it possible to study at Harvard

Finally, there are another 2,000 or so scholarship-awarding bodies (some of which operate locally) that support students in accordance with their own guidelines and beliefs. These include the Haniel Foundation, which offers the valuable Haniel Scholarship Program and partly funds the McCloy Scholarship Program. First and foremost, the Haniel Foundation aims to support young people who aspire to the image of the “Honorable merchant”. “The members of the Haniel family have always seen themselves as responsible and entrepreneurial citizens. We want to discover the same spirit in the people selected for our scholarships,” says Rupert Antes, the executive director of the Haniel Foundation.

The members of the Haniel family have always seen themselves as responsible and entrepreneurial citizens. We want to discover the same spirit in the people selected for our scholarships.

Rupert Antes, Haniel Foundation

It is a unique situation that several institutions are entrusted with talent development in Germany. As a result, society is better represented than would be possible with a central body for gifted individuals. In turn, this increases the appeal among school and college students. “Furthermore, scholarships in Germany are part and parcel of normal higher education – and therefore society. In the French system of grandes écoles, for instance, which are aimed at only the very best, the picture is completely different,” explains Sibylle Kalmbach, highlighting an additional benefit of the German approach to talent development.

A Revised Application System

For a long time, the talent development organizations and other scholarship-awarding bodies were faced with the accusation of only helping an intellectual elite. The argument was that talented individuals from more disadvantaged backgrounds had little chance of being accepted onto a scholarship program. Even in 2009, the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies titled a study on scholarship applicants and recipients “young, single, and from a good home.” At the time, just 20 percent of scholarship recipients had parents who were not academics – a figure that stood at 40 percent among the student population as a whole. The talent development organizations have since responded to this social imbalance. In 2010, the German Academic Scholarship Foundation, for instance, started allowing direct applications alongside teacher and professor recommendations, which had been the only application options until that point. Also, new approaches such as the ambassador program (see below) were instigated in order to make motivated young people more aware of the range of scholarships available. As a result, the proportion of first-time academics among the scholarship recipients increased to 30 percent. “The aim is not to fund elites. We wish to support young people who show signs of wanting to use their exceptional talents for the good of society,” says Sibylle Kalmbach. 

In social terms, the German scholarship system remains highly selective.

Mira Maier, Initiative for Transparent Student Support

As far as Mira Maier, the founder of Initiative für transparente Studienförderung (Initiative for Transparent Student Support) is concerned, there is still a lot of work to be done in the field of talent development. “In social terms, the German scholarship system remains highly selective.” In conjunction with Stiftung Mercator, her initiative published the largest study to date on the scholarship situation in Germany. One of the study’s findings was that working-class children, women, and students with a migrant background are underrepresented when it comes to the awarding of scholarships. Only 59 percent of students with a less privileged educational background, for example, had already applied for a scholarship, with this figure rising to 65 percent among students with a more privileged educational background. While 65 percent of male students applied for funding, only 63.5 percent of female students did so. At first glance, it would appear that students with a migrant background applied just as frequently as those without a migrant background. However, this only relates to those who did not acquire their university entrance qualification at a German school. All other groups are underrepresented in terms of applicant numbers.

In total, just under 20 percent of students have applied for a scholarship at some point, with around one third of them having their applications accepted. Students of academic universities are slightly ahead of those from universities of applied sciences.

Talent Development Ambassadors

When it comes to PR work for its scholarships, the German Academic Scholarship Foundation has been using “ambassadors” for the past five years. These are scholarship recipients who talk about talent development schemes at informational events in colleges and schools, drawing on their own résumés and personal experiences. While, at first glance, the application procedures may seem complex and the selection criteria obscure, the ambassadors break them down using their own personal experience, making the application process understandable, less abstract, and suddenly more appealing to potential scholarship holders. Ideally, the Foundation’s ambassadors are joined by representatives of other talent development organizations or initiatives such as Arbeiterkind. “By sharing a stage, you can fully showcase the strength of the German system, i.e. the diversity of the institutions offering funding,” explains Kalmbach enthusiastically. More than 500 ambassadors are also on hand to answer questions posed by prospective scholarship applicants on Facebook. Furthermore, user-friendly search engines such as and offer straightforward support when looking for a scholarship program. The latter also aims to present the student funding options offered by scholarships in an easy-to-understand manner. Therefore, the initiative boldly debunks the “five biggest myths about scholarships” on its website. From “there are only a few scholarship-awarding bodies” to “it takes a long time to apply for a scholarship,” preconceived notions are challenged.

When scholarship holders and alumni from a range of programs make public appearances, they achieve something else, too: they give the talent development system a face. “We and other scholarship-awarding bodies often have to explain why it is so important to support talented people who can and want to take responsibility for society,” points out Sibylle Kalmbach.

The ambassadors give the talent development system a face.

Responsibility also takes center stage with the Haniel Scholarship Program and the McCloy Academic Scholarship Program, which is funded by the Haniel Foundation and others. The first of these celebrated its 25-year anniversary in November 2016. It supports gifted students who are characterized by their achievements, wide-ranging interests, tolerant personality, and sense of social responsibility. “Over 25 years, the program has granted 165 students full scholarships at elite colleges around the world, not only promoting personal development but also fostering intercultural and international relations,” said Franz M. Haniel, Chairman of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees, at the program’s anniversary celebrations. The Haniel scholarship is one of the most prestigious funding programs in Germany for economic and related postgraduate studies, with around 220 applicants a year competing for seven or eight places.

A well-rounded combination of achievement, initiative, and responsibility is also a key selection criterion when choosing students for the McCloy Academic Scholarship Program.  Alongside the Haniel Foundation, the program is jointly funded by Harvard University, the McCloy Scholarship Foundation within the Stifterverband joint initiative, and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.  It was established in 1983, and the Haniel Foundation currently contributes €80,000 per year to the funding budget. Apart from its aim of qualifying scholarship holders for roles in public-sector and international organizations, the core objective of the program is to build networks between the scholarship holders: “The network and many of the people are extremely important to me. I have excellent working relationships with many of the scholarship recipients, including at international level. This is very advantageous, as we are all on the same wavelength to a certain extent,” says McCloy alumna Susanna Krüger. Friederike von Reden, who studied at Harvard Kennedy School from 2014 to 2016 as part of the scholarship program, is also passionate about the “McCloy spirit.” “Even before you go over there [to the United States], you will be welcomed into the ‘McCloy family’ at the annual get-together – which I really like.”

Acceptance Criteria

Who are these four percent who qualify for talent development on account of their outstanding achievements? The common rumor that only the top performers in each year are considered for a scholarship stubbornly persists, even though grades are not the most important factor. Instead, applicants should demonstrate a wide range of interests, as well as extracurricular activities, in their application. The majority of scholarship-awarding bodies and talent development organizations do not have a general set of criteria that can be applied to all candidates. Each and every person is considered individually: “We look at everyone’s own story. Did they have to spend a lot of time looking after their younger siblings or contribute to the family income by working a job while at school, or did they perhaps not even have the opportunity to get involved in other activities?” explains Kalmbach. The Haniel Foundation also looks for a balanced résumé and questions the various items. “If someone is active in many different areas, we ask them about it. Is it only there to pad out the résumé?  Or are they genuinely dedicated? We would prefer an applicant to be involved in just one organization – but fully,” says Rupert Antes. Anna-Lena Winkler, program head at the Haniel Foundation, adds: “We carefully consider the personality of the person sitting opposite us. What are their aims? Are they enthusiastic? Do they get involved?”

We would prefer an applicant to be involved in just one organization – but fully.

Rupert Antes, Haniel Foundation

Generally speaking, the admissions process begins with a test or recommendation and a written application. If this has a positive outcome, the candidate will be invited to interview. The German Academic Scholarship Foundation holds regular selection weekends. From Friday to Sunday, a voluntary panel assesses around 50 candidates by means of one-on-one interviews and group discussions. Every year, some 10,000 young people pass through the various stages of the application process, with the decisions taken at the end of the selection procedure. The scholarship-awarding bodies and talent development organizations usually provide comprehensive information on their website about the individual steps of the process, as well as the point at which a recommendation is required and who is authorized to issue one.

© Haniel Stiftung

The Haniel Scholarship kick-off includes a visit a the Haniel Museum. At the historic desks, the scholarship recipients trace the story of the Haniel family and the company they founded

So Much More Than Just Financial Support

First and foremost, scholarships are a building block, either making it affordable for people to study at all or considerably easing the financial burden. However, the financial freedom that makes it possible for many people to go to college in the first place is just one reason why scholarships are so vital. The other is the encouragement that was touched upon earlier by Sibylle Kalmbach. Many students only feel this fully when they take advantage of the many opportunities to share ideas with fellow students at events organized by the German Academic Scholarship Foundation. “I keep hearing from students that they only understand the importance of a scholarship when they take part themselves. The significance isn’t clear to many of them at the time of the application,” explains Kalmbach.

The Haniel Foundation offers a long-term ideas platform in the shape of annual scholarship seminars, where professors provide food for thought and where alumni and scholarship holders engage in lively discussions. During specialist forums dedicated to a single topic such as “doing business fairly” or “social entrepreneurship,” there is plenty of time for one-on-one talks. Here, many valuable contacts are made and ideas discussed: “I really like the fruitful discussions at the events,” says Florian Forstmann. Following his study program at Harvard, the former Haniel scholar set up online toy retailer myToys.

The “McCloys” also meet up once a year in order to listen to keynote speeches and share ideas.

Studies show that scholarship recipients are more willing to complete a portion of their university education abroad than students in general. Figures compiled by the German Academic Scholarship Foundation indicate that almost three quarters of their scholarship recipients spend a certain amount of time at a university abroad, whereas only 30 percent of students in general do so. Studying abroad is at the heart of both the Haniel scholarships and the McCloy Academic Scholarship Program. As McCoy alumnus Stefan Wisbauer explains, this is a unique way of fostering intercultural exchange: “As part of a program at the Harvard Business School, I and a group of other students spent an entire summer in the Middle East. Here, we worked with both Israelis and Palestinians to develop projects that aim to build bridges between the two communities and closely analyzed specific trade structures, such as those at major ports.”

You lose your inhibitions about meeting officials and operate with much greater ease on the international stage.

Susanna Krüger, Save the Children

Another example of the intercultural contribution made by scholarship holders is the annual German American Conference at Harvard, which Handelsblatt has described as a “transatlantic summit.”  The conference, which is organized by the students themselves, attracts leading figures from the worlds of politics, business, and academia. Frederic Rupprecht, also a Haniel scholarship recipient, was a member of the four-person organizational committee. Guest speakers included former ARD US correspondent Ingo Zamperoni and former World Bank President Robert Zoellick.

Experience abroad also hones the skills of each scholarship holder, but not just in terms of their academic discipline, as Susanna Krüger explains: “Your self-assurance grows, as does the feeling that pretty much anything is possible. You lose your inhibitions about meeting officials and operate with much greater ease on the international stage.”

Without scholarships, it would have been difficult for the roughly 1,500 students supported by the various programs of the Haniel Foundation since 1990 to gain this valuable experience. This is reflected in the professional careers of the alumni, with social responsibility a guiding principle of their entrepreneurial activities. Therefore, the support given to individual talented young people also benefits a much larger group: society as a whole.

Text: Julia Holzapfel

Von Haniel Stiftung


Haniel Scholarship Program of the Studienstiftung

You can find further information on the requirements via Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes (in German).


McCloy Academic Scholarship Program

The information sheet of the Studienstiftung provides further information on the prerequisites and the program (in German).

On the McCloy website, you will get to know the current and former scholarship holders of the program (in German).


More information on the scholarships under:

Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes
Harvard Kennedy School