In the cold of a Nebraska winter, amidst the misery of the Covid pandemic, recruiters from Northeast Community College in Norfolk began reaching out to high schools with a message of hope for students.
In mid-December, the college — to its astonishment — had received a $15 million gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. Its leaders knew exactly what to do with it.
For months, they brainstormed about how to connect with the most underserved residents of the college’s 20-county region in northeast Nebraska. Those include families of meatpacking workers on temporary work visas; students without full U.S. citizenship; young people who, for one reason or another, were ineligible for federal financial aid or other scholarships.
“We have fewer first-generation college students in our programs than we should have,” said Northeast President Leah Barrett.
The pandemic made it worse. Students in the most precarious situations were the first to disappear from classes.
Northeast used money from Scott’s gift to enroll 35 students who wanted to attend college but thought they would never have an opportunity. The bulk of the grant went into the college’s endowment and will be used to offer future students the chance at a postsecondary education.
“The timing couldn’t be better,” Barrett said. “The gift really allowed us to dig into our data and to help all of our faculty and staff and our region to understand the role of our community college in building economic vitality and empowering people.”
A proven pathway to opportunity
Around the nation, dozens of community colleges and four-year institutions were astonished to find themselves recipients of no-strings-attached grants from Scott, the former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Ten American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) members received notice of the gift in December, and an additional 19 AACC-member colleges learned the good news in June. For nearly all of the schools, Scott’s gift was the largest individual contribution they had ever received.
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In two essays on Medium.com, Scott said she had asked a team of advisers to identify colleges and nonprofits with strong leadership teams and solid records of working with communities dealing with poverty, racial inequality and low access to philanthropic money. Some of her recipients serve Native American populations. Others have primarily Black and Latino student enrollments.
“Higher education is a proven pathway to opportunity, so we looked for 2- and 4-year institutions successfully educating students who come from communities that have been chronically underserved,” Scott wrote.
A review of news releases from community college recipients shows that early plans include new career pathways, more scholarship aid and wrap-around services for students. Leaders saw the gifts as a recognition of their work and their goals, and a way to expand their missions. Nearly all college leaders said they felt a responsibility to live up to Scott’s confidence in them by using the money to better the lives of students and communities.
‘Shock and awe’
One of the largest grants, $45 million, went to Indian River State College (IRSC) in Fort Pierce, Florida. It serves about 25,000 students on Florida’s east coast.
“I’m going to work every day to live up to the expectation that she’s placed upon us,” said IRSC President Timothy Moore. “The intent of her gift is to help others.”
At Moore’s request, the college’s foundation became the official recipient of the gift.
“I wanted to have some time to let the shock and awe sink in,” he said. “There’s no strategic plan that can survive that size of capital injection.”
In the months since they received word of the gift, IRSC has taken steps to expand its nursing program with the goal of doubling its annual number of graduates to more than 600 a year.
The college has partnered with Adobe, the computer software company, to make the full Adobe toolkit available to every student, faculty member and staffer.
“It unleashes creativity,” Moore said.
Other dollars will support students in need.
“Our mission is, we take anybody from anywhere,” Moore said. “I don’t care if you’re homeless, with a child, food insecure, don’t have the support at home — we don’t quit.”
Scott has urged other donors to consider giving to her recipients, and that’ has happened at IRSC. Moore said the college received a gift nearly as large as Scott’s “from a donor who had never heard of us before (Scott’s) gift arrived.”
Helping students and communities
Kennedy-King College in Chicago received a $5 million grant from Scott in June.
“There was a lot of joy, not just for the college but also for the community,” President Gregory Thomas said. “The impact on our college and our community is the same thing.”
Kennedy-King, a part of the City Colleges of Chicago system, serves nearly 5,000 students, 93% of whom are Black and Latino.
The campus is a hub of Chicago’s South Side. Its mission is to correct longstanding inequities in opportunity and quality of life in an impoverished neighborhood. Kennedy-King’s arts and culinary programs provide the only theater and fine-dining experiences in the community, Thomas said.
Scott’s unexpected gift has enabled the college to start the first endowment in its history. Some of the money will support a student emergency fund to help with tuition and expenses like food, child care and housing. Other dollars will go toward expanding art programs.
“We want to make sure that what we do will have a profound impact on our students and our community,” Thomas said.
Focused on supports
At Lee College in Baytown, Texas, near Houston, Scott’s gift of $5 million arrived in June as a sort of affirmation. The college had offered free tuition to many students for the summer and fall semesters. It also had spent more than $2 million helping students with basic needs like food and medical expenses.
“We wanted to focus on how we could support the students who needed to come to college the most,” said President Lynda Villaneuva. “We put some risk capital into it. We really felt that during the pandemic, that’s what we needed to do to help.”
With Scott’s gift, Lee College will act upon a longstanding dream of renovating and expanding a building to create a resource and advocacy center where students can get help with basic needs, mental health and financial wellness, along with academic support.
“Coming to college shouldn’t mean that students should have to do without life’s necessities,” Villaneuva said. “And when they face these financial hardships they shouldn’t have to give up on college.”