You are in your senior year at college, you are the first person in your family ever to go to college and you’ve run out of money. Your family can’t help and the credit crunch has squeezed private school loans off the market.
If you are Dr. Wesley McClure, President of Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, you don’t have to imagine.
“I see this student every day. Over 40 years ago, as a poor African American, I was that student. I understand what he or she is going through,” said Dr. McClure.
Dr. McClure wasn’t alone in seeing the problem. The historically black colleges and universities that are members of UNCF (United Negro College Fund) started talking with UNCF officials about this several years ago when the current recession began to take hold. Students were simply running out of money. Their families couldn’t help.
In 2009, thanks to a matching grant from Exxon Mobil, UNCF established a program called the Campaign for Emergency Student Aid (CESA). The objective was to make sure that seniors who are on pace to graduate have the money to do so.
Dr. McClure said that to understand why CESA was and is so important, you have to understand some history.
“Before the recession hit, unemployment, crime and other barriers to education were already at unacceptable rates in our communities of color,” explained McClure. “When this economy worsened, it hit the poorer communities and the people who live in them like a hurricane.”
Dr. McClure has a point about the need. Last year, UNCF provided over 10,000 scholarships and raised an additional $5 million to fund CESA awards to the thirty-eight historically black colleges and universities belonging to the UNCF network of member institutions to help the students who were at financial risk of not graduating.
“We would receive an email from a student thanking us for a CESA grant and often they said, ‘I just didn’t know how I was going to find the money,'” said Kimberly Hall, UNCF’s Director of Scholarship Programs.
The interesting thing is that the money often amounts to only several hundred dollars. In fact, the average CESA grant for a college senior is $1,600, which seems manageable to most people.
“For our students, 90% of them come from poor backgrounds, it is not only a lot of money, but it can often be an insurmountable sum,” said Dr. McClure.
“In our minority communities, we are fighting despair and hopelessness. Too many of our youth don’t even try to go to college. The ones who try not only deserve a chance to succeed, for this country’s sake they have to succeed,” added Dr. McClure. “To lose a student as he or she is getting ready to graduate is not just a statistic, it’s a failure that is on all of us.”
Dr. McClure emphasized that the statistics on someone dropping out in his or her senior year to go back to work show that more than half never finish their degree despite being only a few classes short.
And it’s for that reason that CESA has become such a popular and critical UNCF scholarship program and why UNCF wants to raise $5 million for student aid in this school year.
“Our donors understand and embrace this program because the message is so simple. We are trying to keep a young person in school and on track to graduate,” said John Donohue, Executive Vice President at UNCF. “We can report back to some donors in a matter of weeks who was helped and where they came from.”
UNCF has received extraordinary corporate and foundation support for the program. Lowe’s Charitable and Education Foundation which became a CESA donor in 2009, continues to be a significant contributor, having recently committed $1 million in support. Additional corporate contributions are being sought for this year. UNCF is also promoting the CESA program to foundations, churches and individuals.
The ultimate decision of who gets the financial aid is made by the school officials who know which young people are in economic distress.
“Our students arrive at a crisis moment where they realize they might have to drop out of school just as they are getting ready to cross the finish line of graduation,” said Dr. McClure. “The average CESA grant is $1,600, which for one of my students is a major gift that tells them, you’ve worked hard and you deserve to finish your degree.”
Is it working?
UNCF released a group of letters from grateful students, who thanks to CESA grants, were able to earn their degrees last spring. Melanie Willoughby of Dillard University in New Orleans was one of the students.
“Generosity is always putting other people’s wants and needs before your own,” she wrote in the letter.
Dr. McClure looks at it similarly.
“We are talking about a promise made to these students. We ask them to leave their community, to work hard and to study hard. Now at the end, we’ll help you get across the finish line. Thanks to CESA we can keep that promise!”
REFERENCE: UNCF: http://give.uncf.org/cesa