Flexible and agile to the finish line
A new kind of scholarship, called flexible scholarships, helps with tailored services so students achieve their aspirations
by Rhonda Morin
Photo above: Michele Goodwin (left) and Greg Goodwin (right) get to know scholarship students Ariana Peters and Emanuiel Cota during a scholarship-partner meeting in July 2018.
The Gregory and Michele Goodwin scholarship could not have come at a better time for Ariana Peters.
The so-called flexible scholarship Peters receives helps her stay in school to complete her studies in biology. These news kinds of Clark scholarships are also earmarked for areas of opportunity in emerging careers such as advanced manufacturing.
Peters was sick over the winter. She missed classes and lost hours at work, leaving her with little money to pay the next quarter’s tuition bill. Peters’ instructors understood her dilemma and accommodated her schedule, giving her a chance to make up work. The only incomplete she got was in band – a course where you have to be present to perform. Professor Rich Inouye let her catch up in the spring so she was able to complete the course. Peters is an aspiring jazz artist, and one of a handful of women who play in Clark’s Jazz Band. She plays the trombone.
Money is tight for the Vancouver resident, who has aspirations of being a pharmacy technician. Peters is also considering going on for an advanced degree and wants to work in research to help cure brain cancer. She had to drop a math class this summer because she did not have enough money. She even went to her parents for support, something she does not like to do.
“I was angry because I had to ask my parents to help me financially. They gave me $100,” said the 20 year old.
In summer 2018, Peters received a band scholarship for her pursuit of music. However, the $500 award fell hundreds of dollars short of her $1,040 tuition bill for the quarter.
Since she still had more to pay, Peters went to Clark’s financial aid office to ask for help. Lizette Drennan, a financial aid program specialist, assisted Peters by reviewing her eligibility for a new flexible scholarship offered by philanthropists Greg and Michele Goodwin for students who are in circumstances where they might otherwise not be able to continue their education. Peters qualified for a $540 award, and in July, she and other Clark students joined their scholarship donors for a private meeting on campus.
“Thank you for putting your faith in me and wanting to see me succeed,” Peters said. “It’s nice that the Goodwins would take a chance on me.”
Six hundred and twenty-five scholarship awards and other types of financial assistance have been awarded so far through Clark College Foundation during the 2017-2018 academic year. That equals more than $1 million—a trend now in its second year—awarded through the foundation.
Additionally, Clark College assists with awarding $1.6 million in scholarships and $35 million a year in financial aid loans and grants, according to Clark’s Planning and Effectiveness office.
However, thousands of students who need financial assistance to afford the more than $4,100 annual tuition to attend full time go without. More than 40 percent of Clark students are low income, and 34 percent are low income and first in their families to attend college, according to Clark’s Planning and Effectiveness office. Many students seek loans to support their education, while others simply drop out of school when faced with financial challenges. A 2014 survey from Planning and Effectiveness showed that 14 percent of students dropped courses they had registered for because of financial reasons.
“We know already that we’re losing students to situations that if we had additional flexible aid to provide them, we would be able to keep them in school,” said Belden, vice president of Student Affairs at Clark.
The American Association of Community Colleges in 2015 determined that the average community college student amasses more than $16,500 in tuition debt. While that debt figure is significantly lower for Clark College students due to the efforts of the foundation and college, many Clark students are still burdened with thousands of dollars in debt when they leave the institution.
College debt is particularly sensitive for students who come from systemically non-dominant groups. For many of these ambitious individuals, attending college is something completely new to them and their families. More than 70 percent of Clark’s students are first-generation college attendees. For many of them, there is little or no long-term planning, or even the capacity, to save for college.
One vexing issue, according to Belden, is that not all students who have low incomes qualify for financial aid.
“They still struggle to meet their basic needs for housing, food and transportation on top of their education expenses for tuition, books and fees,” he said.
“Those who we can support through traditional financial aid still might not have their full need met. We would like money that is flexible to help all students meet their goals of attaining an education. We see flexible scholarships as being those funds we can use outside of the traditional tuition and fee structure,” he added.
Expenses for daily needs such as child care, food, housing and transportation are examples of financial strains students face on a daily basis.
Flexible scholarships “are an additional source of funding that we can tailor to the needs of each individual student,” he explained.
Department-focused or program scholarships are the most popular and widespread form of donated financial support. The reason for this is that people tend to give to the areas they care most about, and oftentimes this is the area they studied or from which they graduated. While successful fundraising programs tend to be donor-driven—they match donors’ interests with the institution’s programs or projects—there is an increasing need for scholarships that are less restrictive in terms of the way they are set up or the programs they support.
These unrestricted scholarships are much more difficult to secure, based on fundraising reports and surveys. For many donors, the personal interest factor is missing and they have questions about student outcomes and accountability.
However, long-time donors, like the Goodwins and Cheree Nygard, see how unrestricted, flexible scholarships meet the needs of a community college student population.
“It’s not up to me to say what the gap is for Clark students. I trust the college to identify that gap and assist the students along their path to completion and to a successful career,” said Nygard, who is also the chair of Clark College Foundation’s Board of Directors.
“Because the college is very intimate with the students, they can adjust the services that are necessary. These flexible scholarships fill in the funding gap that can occur,” she added.
The other challenge for institutions, particularly community colleges, is that academic pathways and technical training programs oftentimes focus on emerging jobs, such as robotics, artificial intelligence and advanced manufacturing. Colleges try to match students with these exciting areas—openings that can sometimes change from year to year.
However, because many of the scholarships are restricted to certain academic areas or specific qualifications, financial assistance for students studying in these evolving programs is limited. A missed opportunity is the result for students, while prospective employers lose qualified workers. With the Guided Pathways initiative currently underway at Clark, flexible scholarships are especially critical when it comes to helping them stay in school and encouraging them to complete their studies.
The promise of Guided Pathways is that Clark’s services connect with students from the moment they inquire about the college. They get one-on-one assistance to navigate the complexities of enrollment, adjust to college expectations, mitigate daily challenges and complete their degrees.
“We get to know our students very well. Through the entry process we assess their financial needs and tailor services and resources to their situation based on what we know about them,” said Belden.
Clark College Foundation, as part of a $35 million campaign announced November 15, 2018, is dedicated to raising millions of dollars in flexible scholarships and awards, many in the form of permanent endowments. These scholarships are earmarked for areas of opportunity in emerging careers such as advanced manufacturing. The scholarships also help students stay in school and complete their studies.
For example, flexible scholarships can be available for students who are nearing completion of their degree or certificates but need an additional financial boost to make it across the finish line. These scholarships can also encourage individuals to remain in school instead of taking a short-term job that might sacrifice a potentially stable, long-term professional career they could attain with a degree or certificate.
The foundation is committed to educating current and potential partners about the realities of today’s higher education environment and the employment opportunities for students who complete their studies. It proposes to raise $4 million over the course of its Promising Pathways fundraising campaign to support the flexible institutional scholarships. Meanwhile, the foundation will continue to raise money for program and department awards for a total scholarship goal of $8 million by the end of the campaign in about 2021.
“We, as a college, are good stewards of public money and private donations. We will use that money in the most thoughtful and data-informed way to ensure that we are supporting the individuals here at Clark College in the completion of their programs of study and helping them find living-wage jobs,” said Belden.