Budget & Finance

Small Towns, Big Success

By Jeanne Ponessa — April 02, 1997 13 min read
A school district in Iowa has built a scholarship fund that promises money to every student who wants it.

Brooklyn, Iowa

The town of Brooklyn, nestled in rolling hills amid corn and soybean fields, is in many ways typical of America’s rural heartland. From the cluster of storefronts that make up its main street, to the farms that dot the landscape, to the affable neighborliness of people who occasionally leave doors unlocked, this central Iowa community embodies a quiet and unassuming simplicity.

But this is also a community that has done something out of the ordinary: Through private local contributions, the residents have amassed a scholarship foundation with a big-city-sized endowment of more than $600,000. In the process, the local school district has nearly doubled its college-going rate in seven years.

What conditions have fostered such a successful effort to help send youngsters to college? Not local wealth, to be sure. Although there have been several generous contributions, the scholarship foundation has not relied solely on any one large donation or moneyed citizen.

The success of the scholarship drive has instead built on several other factors, including a strong communitywide commitment to education, a persistent publicity effort aided by the local newspaper, and the egalitarian nature of the scholarships. Organizers have pledged that every student who applies for a scholarship and is going on to some form of postsecondary education will receive money.

The Citizens’ Scholarship Foundation of Brooklyn-Guernsey-Malcom, its official name referring to the three towns in the 655-student school district, is a chapter of the Dollars for Scholars program coordinated by the St. Peter, Minn.-based Citizens’ Scholarship Foundation of America, a national, nonprofit educational support organization.

The CSFA provides community volunteers with organizational assistance for the 775 Dollars for Scholars chapters across the country. Recent estimates by the CSFA show that its Dollars for Scholars groups raised more than $21 million for scholarships in 1996.

Although the Dollars for Scholars chapter here is just one of many successful CSFA-affiliated scholarship groups, it nevertheless remains a standout. It leads the Iowa chapters in size of endowment, and last year it handed out 47 new scholarships and grants, some as large as $1,500, and 23 renewals for a total of nearly $35,000. And because the chapter distributes only the interest from the fund each year, the endowment is untouchable.

A grant of even a few hundred dollars can help any student pay for an expense such as a year’s worth of books.

But to its organizers, the improvement in the college-going rate is the group’s most remarkable achievement so far. “We’re changing our kids’ attitudes about higher education,” says J.C. Miller, the president and tireless promoter of the local affiliate. “If we can get our kids thinking college from the beginning, and our parents are thinking college, that’s two-thirds of the battle.”

Money and Mud

On an overcast March morning here, the once-green hills are a mottled gray. There is mud everywhere, in the fields, on the roads, and now, all over Mr. Miller’s car.

Unfazed by this particular distraction, Mr. Miller slams the car door shut and bounds up to the doors of the building that houses the junior and senior high school and the district’s administrative offices.

Inside, the office workers greet Mr. Miller, who holds a regular full-time job as the controller for a highway contractor, but is well-known here for his enthusiasm in championing the scholarship drive. This morning, he’s at the school to hand out scholarship applications to seniors.

Twenty-three of the school’s 45 seniors attend a special early-morning session to receive the applications, which, once filled out, amount to guaranteed cash. Other seniors have arranged to pick up the forms from their counselor throughout the day.

Mr. Miller distributes the forms with a stern reminder: “If you don’t apply, you get nothing,” he says, noting that the applications are due in three weeks. “If you’re late, don’t even bother coming to us.”

The seniors understand this ritual as part of what has become local tradition: Roughly half of the students in the room have brothers or sisters who have received scholarships from the foundation, and they’ve been hearing about the scholarships for most of their high school years.

Many of the students here this morning say they plan to attend in-state colleges, and most of the schools they mention don’t have the sky-high price tags that have come to be associated with higher education.

Still, a grant of even a few hundred dollars can help any student pay for an expense such as a year’s worth of books. Several students say these scholarships are particularly helpful because the money is paid directly to them rather than to the college.

Another incentive, senior Angie Ochs points out, is that filling out this paperwork is a much better deal than spending lots of time on scholarship applications with no guarantee of any money at all.

Her observation is true for many of the district’s students, acknowledges high school counselor Steve Stumpff. The low probability of getting a national scholarship has deterred many of the students from applying for such big prizes. “It’s like playing the lottery,” Mr. Stumpff says. “In a way you can’t blame them because their chances are slim to none.”

The percentage of the district’s seniors seeking higher education has grown from 40 percent in 1990 to about 80 percent in 1996.

But community members say there’s been a definite change in attitude since the foundation has been operating here: The school’s annual “class night,” when scholarship awards are announced, has turned into a well-attended success. Instead of one or two students walking away with awards, now practically everyone, including those who have never won anything in their lives, goes home with a scholarship.

The high level of participation made an impression on William C. Nelsen, the president of the CSFA, who remembers the time he came to Iowa to attend the district’s class night in 1995. On one side of the gym were the students, he says, and on the other side were volunteers on hand to give out the scholarships. “And they just kept giving them and giving them,” he says.

Mr. Miller, meanwhile, doesn’t stay at the school for long this morning once he hands out the applications--he heads back down the muddy road to work. But, like an anxious father, he clearly takes pride in the number of students who seek out a scholarship.

When he returns to the school later in the day, he gets an update from Mr. Stumpff on how many stragglers have come to pick up the forms.

Publicity, Perseverance

The foundation was organized in the spring of 1989 by a group of parents, teachers, and others interested in the school district. They expressed concern that the Brooklyn-Guernsey-Malcom district historically had sent a lower percentage of its students on to higher education than Iowa’s state average.

The group began raising money, building an endowment, and handing out scholarships. And the results have been overwhelming: Over the past seven years, the foundation has awarded $114,580 in grants and scholarships to its students. The percentage of the district’s seniors seeking higher education has grown from 40 percent in 1990 to about 80 percent in 1996. The awards now include scholarships for second-year college students, loans for older residents who want to return to school, and mini-grants for teachers to undertake special projects.

So how did the foundation’s organizers manage to accumulate such sums and maintain community interest? After all, from a fund-raising perspective, the foundation relies primarily on a once-a-year letter sent to about 4,000 addresses.

A key has been publicity, which is easier in a town where the newspaper also serves as a community bulletin board.

Community members point to Mr. Miller and his organizational skills as the first key to the group’s success. Mr. Miller, in fact, spends a great deal of time keeping painstakingly detailed records of the foundation’s activities and spreading the good news about the scholarships.

He, in turn, benefits from his company’s granting him as much time as he needs to work on the scholarship fund. Yet Brad Manatt, the president of Manatt’s Inc., Mr. Miller’s employer and a major contributor to the foundation, shrugs off the suggestion that he has done anything particularly noteworthy by providing the time. “I didn’t know I had a choice,” Mr. Manatt says jokingly.

Another key has been publicity, which is easier in a town where the newspaper also serves as a community bulletin board. Frank Heinen, the foundation’s publicity chairman, writes an article about the scholarship fund each week for publication in the Brooklyn Chronicle. And he ends each article with an address to which contributions can be sent.

Living in an area that’s small enough for people to know each other doesn’t hurt either. Lyle Oswood, the foundation’s vice president and a Brooklyn City Council member, credits “the fact that we know each of our kids and the fact that they know the money is there” for students. Mr. Oswood, a 37-year Brooklyn teaching veteran who still works occasionally as a substitute teacher for younger grades, adds, “I can do commercials right in the classroom.”

He also notes that the foundation has benefited from several memorial contributions. “When you’re raising children, you don’t have a lot of money left over,” says Mr. Oswood, who serves as the president of the local activity center for senior citizens. But, he adds, the potential for contributions from a town’s older citizens “is untapped in a lot of communities.”

Rollie Harder, the president of the Poweshiek County Savings Bank, a major contributor to the foundation, offers another reason why the scholarship effort has come together: a large board of directors that provides support and input from all areas. Indeed, the 23-member board has representatives from the business, education, civic, and religious communities of all three towns.

And from the school’s perspective, Superintendent Maurice McDonald says that the foundation is successful because of deep roots in the community’s commitment to education. With a broad level of community involvement, he adds, the effort is much more effective than if it had been a school-initiated project.

What effect outside groups can have on a student’s decision to go to college is an issue that educators and community groups spend a great deal of time examining.

“It is the money, but really, it isn’t,” Mr. McDonald says. “I think it’s [having] someone who says, ‘We’re interested in you, we care about your future, and here is something to get you going.’”

Boosters and Beneficiaries

The CSFA is, in fact, very interested in finding out about more about this community-scholarship connection. With a grant from the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the CSFA contracted with researchers from Harvard University’s graduate school of education to study the effect of Dollars for Scholars chapters on communities.

According to the preliminary findings of the Dollars for Scholars Educational Impact Research Project, the program “functions as a visible and tangible conduit for educators, parents, and community members to recognize excellence, need, and aspiration among a community’s secondary school population.” In addition to the dollar value of the scholarships, Dollars for Scholars offers a nonmaterial form of support that is generally not available elsewhere in the community, according to the findings.

In addition, the early results show that the dollar value of the scholarships may be sufficient to affect a student’s plans for higher education. At the same time, though, the amount was found to be insufficient to address a greater concern of families: the escalating cost of higher education.

That issue--what effect outside groups can have on a student’s decision to go to college--is one that educators and community groups across the country spend a great deal of time examining.

For instance, at the Cleveland Scholarship Programs Inc., a separate scholarship group that serves students in northeastern Ohio, organizers say that counseling on financial aid may mean as much to students as the scholarship itself.

Christina Milano, the executive director of the 30-year-old organization, says that many of the students her group serves are first-generation college students. The group’s average $800 grant won’t in and of itself get the students to college, she says.

But the organization helps put the whole financial-aid picture together for students by helping them get aid applications filled out on time, helping them talk with financial-aid officers, and helping them find all of the financial aid to which they are entitled, Ms. Milano says.

Yet Arthur Levine, the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, cautions that there’s more to getting a student to go to college than just providing the money.

“Our kids have had to work through school; none have had a full ride, and none have had unlimited support from Mom and Dad.”

Tony Kriegel
Farmer, father of 12,
school board member

Although there’s nothing wrong with a scholarship program, he says, scholarships are “necessary but insufficient” to send a student to college who would not otherwise have gone there.

Mr. Levine, a co-author of Beating the Odds: How the Poor Get to College, adds that his studies have shown that the disadvantaged students who attend college despite all odds often choose that path because of a mentor and because of systematic encouragement about a college path that began at an early age.

“For some students, the money is all they’re missing; for other students, they’re missing the familiarity [with college], the motivation, the encouragement, the mentor,” he says. “There are lots and lots of kids, lots of families, for whom no price will get them to college.”

The Brooklyn-Guernsey-Malcom Dollars for Scholars chapter does in fact perform some services besides handing out money. The chapter has arranged several programs for experts to come in and talk to parents about saving for college costs and filling out financial-aid forms, for instance.

But the scholarships themselves have real meaning for someone like Elmer Anderson, a truck dispatcher at Manatt’s Inc., whose family has twice benefited from the scholarship foundation: His daughter received a regular scholarship as a senior, and his wife received a “second chance” loan to attend college after nearly 20 years as a homemaker and a cashier.

“I don’t know if my daughter would have gone to college even to try it out if there had not been some sort of scholarship,” Mr. Anderson says. “It’s definitely helped these kids get the idea they need to go on and try something further. “

Tony Kriegel, a farmer and school board member with 12 children, has also reaped the benefits of the Dollars for Scholars awards. Five of his 12 children have received scholarships from the foundation.

“Our kids have had to work through school; none have had a full ride, and none have had unlimited support from Mom and Dad,” he says. “The scholarships they received through the local CSF have been a real aid to them in getting that first year under their belts.”

The first semesters of college are critical, adds Mr. Kriegel, and he encourages his children not to work jobs during this “adjustment” period if possible. “That’s where this scholarship is a big benefit to them, whether it’s $500 or $1,000.”

Mr. Kriegel, who stays firm in his commitment to send all of his children on to some form of higher education, is a contributor to the foundation and hopes some day to have a scholarship in the family’s name.

“I don’t think you can beat an education,” he says.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 02, 1997 edition of Education Week


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