story by Jamie Smith
Editor's note: This is part of a series on various funding aspects of Arkansas’ higher education system. Stories in the series, expected to run through September, are expected to include a look at the Arkansas Lottery Scholarship and guest commentary from Donald Bobbitt, president of the University of Arkansas System. See the list of related stories at the bottom of this page for more stories on the topic.
Millions of dollars are disbursed annually in Northwest Arkansas and the Fort Smith area from people and organizations with a vision for the future.
It’s not money for buildings, or even for special programs that will eventually be named after the donor. The money is in the form of scholarships presented to students of all races, genders, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. It is money intended to invest in the student’s future. Donors provide money for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s simply because they want to support the school and students who attend that school. Others have a very specific interest, such as providing for students living with specific disabilities, or who are from a specific hometown.
For example, there is a scholarship at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville that is for students who were orphaned before age 18, said Wendy Stouffer, executive director of academic scholarships and financial aid.
“We were finally able to award a student that for next year for the first time in several years,” she said. “Right now, we have about four or five private scholarships, out of about 50, that could not be awarded because there were no students that met the donor’s requirements.”
Another example of a private donor scholarship with unique criteria is at NorthWest Arkansas Community College which has several scholarships for students with Asperger’s Syndrome, according to Steven Hinds, executive director of public relations and marketing.
With so many donor scholarships having unique criteria, it might be easy to assume there are many unused dollars floating around just waiting to be had. College and university officials say that unused scholarship money is a rare thing — if it even happens.
“Because we do not have a lot of scholarships that are so specific, we are able to award all of our scholarship money each year. It is very rare to have money left over,” said Alan Pixley, director of financial aid at University of Arkansas-Fort Smith. “We hardly ever leave scholarship money on the table. We try to match up (donated money) to the students.”
The NWACC Foundation has an annual gala that is a fundraiser for scholarships. There are also many private donations given through the Foundation for scholarships. Hinds said that all gala scholarships are awarded and that if a student drops from the college or somehow is no longer eligible, that scholarship goes to the alternate recipient.
Most colleges and universities use a single, universal scholarship application that gives the student access to any and all institution-based scholarships available.
“We really do not have this problem (of unused scholarships) with the centralized programs because students submit one application that puts them into consideration for all scholarships awarded through that program,” Stouffer said.
When financial aid applications are received, officials look for all possible matches to the student.
“We comb our database of students to see if they fit any criteria,” Pixley said. “Freshmen are automatically considered for scholarships when they apply and are accepted for admission. We match our scholarships to the students.”
Pixley gave an example of a scholarship from a donor who made a perfect score on the SAT and recipients of that person’s scholarship must place at least in the 98th percentile on the SAT.
“Believe it or not, we’ve been able to find someone for that scholarship,” he said.
At John Brown University, one of the area’s four-year private colleges, there are no unused scholarships, according to information from Kim Eldridge, associate vice president of admissions and financial aid.
College officials say they see students lose out on scholarships in part because they miss the application date. It is no longer adequate to apply for financial aid during the latter part of the senior year of high school as many schools have moved their application deadlines to the summer months, Pixley said. He said it’s important to start as early as the junior year in high school for financial aid, now that deadlines have been changed.
“People ask how they can get help and it's sickening when students find out it was so simple to apply, but they don't know about it,” Pixley said. “They don't apply for whatever reason and they've missed out on those opportunities.”
As the economy struggles to regain footing. several phenomena are becoming evident. More people are returning to school to either enhance their education or retrain for a field that is more stable in a down economy. The need for fianncial aid has also increased in recent years with the higher enrollment numbers.
“We have given more need-based scholarships to try to keep college affordable for students who are affected by the economy,” Eldridge said.
Officials at the public institutions are seeing similar effects.
“Demand for scholarships is higher than it's ever been,” Pixley said.
A down economy can have an effect on invested scholarship money from endowments.
“If the market\economy is down then the endowments earn less which means there are less funds available to award,” Stouffer said.
While college earnings are down, officials say they have been forturnate to see an increase in community-based donations.
“In this economy, we do have more people apply (for financial aid) but more donors are coming forward,” Hinds said. “We think that the community recognizes the importance of education.”
BY THE NUMBERS
NWACC will award more than 150 scholarships in the upcoming academic year. Roughly 158 students are served by $150,000 to $200,000 annually through scholarships from the NWACC Foundation.
The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith will award approximately $2 million in scholarships to about 500 freshmen students for the 2012-2013 aid year.
JBU offers about 300 scholarship types for a total of $11.3 million annually. More than 89% of 1,300 students enrollled full-time at John Brown receive a scholarships.
UA -Fayetteville awarded more than $20.922 million of institution scholarships to 7,938 full and part-time students during the fall semester of 2011. This did not include athletic aid and tuition waivers. The total number of scholarships varies across campus from year-to-year based on budgets, endowments, student retention, student acceptance and graduation.