March

President's OpEd: scholarships develop future leaders

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It didn’t take long for pundits and politicians alike to pounce on Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett after he unveiled his state budget earlier this month. Many in the media and blogosphere immediately began declaring winners and losers, drawing lines in the sand to support party affiliations and partisan positions.    

Naturally, those of us who are educators have concerns about some of the Governor’s proposals, even as we acknowledge the economic pressures facing state government and the related need to fund important competing priorities such as programs supporting the poor. Yet regardless of political preferences, we are hoping for wide-ranging consensus to back the proposed $25 million Ready to Succeed Scholarships (RTSS) initiative designed for middle-income students.  

RTSS dollars are intended to help middle-income families whose students are taking on the most debt for a postsecondary education regardless of whether they are attending public or private institutions. The merit-based aid initiative would provide $2,000 scholarships to students from families who earn up to $110,000 to help pay for two or four-year college degrees.

Students would be eligible to use these grants at the Pennsylvania college or university of their choice, including state-system universities, community colleges, private colleges and universities or for-profit schools. This philosophy is an important corrective to funding formulas that privilege some sectors of higher education over others. This state funding would “follow the student” not the school! Students would have freedom to select a school that best suits their interests and needs in Pennsylvania where hopefully they will remain after graduation to contribute to our economy and their local community.

Gov. Corbett’s RTSS plan is especially welcome for universities deeply committed to serving students from their own backyard as well as those from the wider region. It would also be an effective complement to the Reading Collegiate Scholars Program (RCSP) launched this January by Alvernia University in partnership with the Olivet Boys & Girls Club. Through the program, high school students living in Reading and active as Olivet members will receive four years of “college readiness” support so they can set their sights on enrolling, attending and graduating from the college of their choice.

The RCSP’s high school scholars—many of whom are first-generation students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds—will receive tutoring, mentoring and other support from Alvernia faculty and staff. Specially trained student-fellows from the university’s Holleran Center for Community Engagement, Olivet staff and community volunteers will also play important roles. Students will be encouraged to explore a range of collegiate options and receive help to navigate the often intimidating admissions and financial aid processes. 

For our part, Alvernia will begin this spring to award up to seven full-scholarships to these young adults. Over time we expect to provide up to 20 such awards annually, with support from generous individuals and organizations. Students will also have the option, under a recent dual admission agreement, of first attending Reading Area Community College before attending Alvernia. Each year the cohort of Alvernia scholars will benefit from customized leadership programs, internships with local companies and professional as well as faculty mentors, coordinated by our O’Pake Institute for Ethics, Leadership and Public Service. 

Students of all economic and cultural backgrounds deserve the opportunity—with hard work and high motivation—to explore a range of appealing college options. For those with limited financial resources, federal and state funding programs are essential. Financial support is also crucial from generous donors who believe in the value of education and who, in many cases, benefited themselves from scholarships. And at a time when relatively affluent students have ample options for higher education, private universities must be places of opportunity for low and middle-income students. 

Yet students need more than money. Programs linking education, business and community organizations are essential if college education is to transform lives and enable communities to re-energize local economies and improve their quality of life. We should seek nothing less than to make Reading a national model for cities seeking to enhance access to and success in higher education. 

Our greatest natural resources are today’s students and tomorrow’s citizens and community leaders. Initiatives like the Reading Collegiate Scholars Program and the Governor’s new RTSS scholarship program are steps in the right direction for our Commonwealth and our community.

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