Trends, Reports & Analyses

New Chapter in Co-op Scholarships

By Michael W. Kahn | ECT Staff Writer Published: January 14th, 2014

Editor’s Note: In a two-part series, ECT.coop takes a look at how electric cooperatives are rethinking their scholarship programs. Part one looks at a story of success with an older student in North Carolina, and the changing demographics of co-op members needing scholarships.

By her own admission, Donna Weatherford’s life was “at a crossroads.”

Carteret Community College is one of two community colleges where students are eligible for a co-op scholarship. (Photo By: Carteret CC)

Carteret Community College is one of two community colleges where students are eligible for a co-op scholarship. (Photo By: Carteret CC)

“January 5, 2013, at the age of 46, I became a widow. One month later, I lost my father,” Weatherford recalled. She had been a full-time caregiver for her husband until he died of lung cancer. That happened two months after the disease killed her mother-in-law.

“I am widowed, fatherless and nearly destitute. I am hungry for a future. I am committed to this goal and I am in desperate need of financial aid.”

Weatherford wrote those words in a letter applying for a new type of scholarship offered by Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative. It’s especially for community college students.

A rethinking of scholarship programs is afoot at some co-ops. While many still offer the traditional high school-to-college scholarships that have been around for decades, others have taken a fresh look at how they help members pay for higher education.

BACK TO SCHOOL

“What we have found is probably about 75 percent are the returning students, the older learners,” Lisa Taylor-Galizia, director of communications at Newport, N.C.-based Carteret-Craven, said of the community college scholarship applicants.

“These are people who have found that it’s hard to get by on the income they’re making without at least a two-year education, and they are biting the bullet and going back to school,” Taylor-Galizia explained. “Some are returning to get training to meet their career goals or reach a higher position. Some of them were laid off and have to retrain for new jobs.”

Seventy-five percent of the decision to award a scholarship is based on need; 25 percent is merit-based. A panel of judges reviews the applications, which include a letter describing educational goals and plans for the future, as well as any special needs or circumstances.

“It gives them an opportunity to explain circumstances beyond what you would see on a FAFSA form or a W-2,” Taylor-Galizia said.

“You read their challenges in going back to school or going to school, and you think, ‘This is tough for these people.’”

That’s a conclusion anyone could reach reading Donna Weatherford’s letter.

A STUDENT’S STORY

When she sent the scholarship application letter in May 2013, Weatherford was taking a summer class at Carteret Community College toward her goal of becoming a registered respiratory therapist.

Donna Weatherford is using a co-op community college scholarship to change her life. (Photo By: Carteret-Craven EC)

Donna Weatherford is using a co-op community college scholarship to change her life. (Photo By: Carteret-Craven EC)

“It felt like a calling,” Weatherford told ECT.coop. “I could make a difference in people’s lives.”

Weatherford, now 47, has a 12-year-old daughter from her first marriage who lives with her father in Virginia. Returning to school—and taking a full class load her first semester—has been a challenge. Weatherford was last in school in 1988, when she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Colombia College.

“My mind is not nearly as fluid as it once was,” she said with a laugh, adding that younger classmates are extremely supportive and she’s doing well.

“I’m rocking it.”

SPREADING THE WORD

Carteret-Craven provides four community college scholarships a year—two at each of the schools it serves. Students are eligible for $250 a semester for up to four semesters, as long as they maintain a 2.5 GPA.

Tuition and fees run to $1,175 per semester at Carteret Community College and $1,202 at Craven Community College.

Only about a quarter of the applicants are high school seniors planning on a two-year degree or looking to start at a community college and then transfer to a four-year college.

In 2013, there were 17 applications for the community college scholarships, compared with the 35-40 the co-op typically gets for the scholarships it still offers to four-year schools. Taylor-Galizia said that while high school counselors help spread the word, making older members aware of the program is more challenging.

“Reaching out to our potential community college applicants—you have to work harder to let them know,” Taylor-Galizia said. Carteret-Craven uses its website, its Facebook page and local newspapers, but “there’s just not that one-on-one with counselors that you see in the school system.”

Still, it’s worth it for what the co-op sees as an investment in local economic development.

“So often these students are working here. They’re raising families in our communities, and they really don’t have a plan to move elsewhere,” Taylor-Galizia said. “So we know this is an investment not only in them, but in our communities and our workforce.”

Read part two: The scholarship that doesn’t look at grades or test scores.

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