Funding Futures: the strategy behind scholarships

Guest Correspondence

Image courtesy Pixabay.

This time of year is always abuzz with excitement as our community’s school-aged students wrap up their current grade with a feeling of accomplishment for all they have learned and how much they have grown since school commenced in fall.

For seniors, of course, the sense of achievement is extraordinary. As they are at a major turning point in their lives, they face opportunities and decisions of a whole new magnitude. Many are moving into post-secondary education, whether that means university, community college or technical school, with the goal of gaining the credentials needed to become contributing members of an ever-changing workforce.

For too many of our community’s graduates, higher education is beyond the reach of their families’ financial means. This is especially true in a landscape of inflation that places a great burden on the pocketbooks of many.

While financial aid via loans is an available option, those looking to bypass stepping into a sinkhole of debt upon graduating from college rely on scholarships as a bridge to their future. 

That’s where community foundations come in: thanks to caring donors whose philanthropic goals include making college attainable for a broader range of students, community foundations are a tremendous resource for scholarships provided to worthy students annually.

The Community Foundation of Sarasota County announced its awards to recipients last week, the first announcement since the publication of the State of Scholarships Report in July 2022. The report, commissioned by the Community Foundation in partnership with the William G. & Marie Selby Foundation, identified gaps in college preparation and funding, and made recommendations for best practices for scholarships. Following this guidance, two key themes in funding consideration this year were equitable scoring and renewable awards

Equitable scoring includes factoring in the candidate’s journey prior to reaching this educational milestone. Many high school students shoulder responsibilities within their homes, like taking care of younger siblings or other household residents, that preclude them from participating in extracurricular activities—those activities like sports, arts or school leadership that make their résumés shine. Other households rely on students’ wages to make ends meet, placing pressure on students that can negatively impact academic performance. With grade point average and a strong résumé being conventional magnets for scholarship dollars, many of these students, who appear average on those metrics, lose out. The Community Foundation review committees accounted for these barriers in determining awards, viewing students as more than numbers and achievements, taking a holistic view.

Renewable scholarships within guidelines that candidates meet certain criteria, such as maintaining a grade point average, provide students with a stable source of funding. We have learned this type of scholarship is key to helping many get to the finish line. Vying for dollars each year adds a layer of stress and, sometimes, futility, that can end a college bid prematurely—not only does that deflate individuals who don’t accrue enough credentials to warrant the trek, it simply doesn’t make economic sense as a scholarship provider. We have enhanced our focus on renewable scholarships, this year awarding nearly a quarter of recipients with this type of funding (up from 15% in 2021). 

As the saying goes: “When you know better, you do better.” On the surface, it makes sense to continue the tradition of awarding the crème of the crop, but the story of what put those students in those coveted high ranked positions in the first place is worth examination. The closer look often reveals lifelong challenges that stack decks and entrench gaps in communities nationwide. 

Along with foundations heeding evidence-based reporting and current trends in higher education and the economy, we are proud to be a part of the evolution in scholarship awards, identifying innovative ways to leverage postsecondary award strategies. Cultivating and retaining a talented, creative, highly skilled workforce is one way to continue building our community into one that offers opportunities for all who call it home. 

Roxie Jerde is president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.

Image courtesy Pixabay.

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