PITTSFIELD >> At awards nights all across Berkshire County this month, high school seniors are crossing stages, shaking hands with their principals and accepting scholarships from local donors that will help pay for college.
Or will they?
Known as private scholarships, these awards — from employers, organizations such as the Zonta Club and scholarship funds established by individuals — have the potential to play a critical role in our national commitment to send more kids to college. In the 2014-2015 school year, they accounted for 14 percent of all scholarships nationwide, or a total of over $1.7 billion in aid, according to the College Board.
While federal and state governments and colleges pay the largest portion of scholarships and grants, private scholarships can help students who are often overlooked by larger, less localized scholarship programs. They can make college more affordable for low-income students and help students of all incomes attend the school of their choice.
But the majority of private scholarships end after freshman year, leaving a funding gap for subsequent years. What's more, they award students on average about $3,400 nationally – and locally even less. They may not always make a dent in the rising costs of college.
One local guidance counselor says that since most awards are not renewable after the first year, his students get through college "one year at a time." This means that the arduous scholarship application follows the student all through school.
Another says that many of her students don't think it is worth the effort to apply for these smaller scholarships. This is shortsighted, but we shouldn't give up on these students. For now, the trend at this school is that the top academic students walk away with an average of four or five scholarships each.
Both point out that students with fewer resources for college often take fewer classes and work more, getting through school more slowly or, worse yet, dropping out. They say parents will take on second or third jobs, and that, together with financial aid officers, families just "find a way to make it work," often via loans.
Meanwhile, here in Massachusetts, higher education spending has been steadily cut while tuition and fees are rising. That was already a worrying trend decades ago when I served for eight years on the Massachusetts Board of Regents.
Diamond in the rough
At the time, my late wife Ruth and I decided to establish endowments for area students — except each award was for only one year. Over the years we were successful getting students into college, but we knew we needed to do something different to help them plan their financing to finish school.
Recently, I approached Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation to develop a pilot program to award four-year scholarships. It is open to any public high school student in Berkshire County, though financial need is a major requirement. I was once a student with limited resources who took advantage of the G.I. Bill after my discharge, so I can appreciate this help.
The scholarship is meant for a "diamond in the rough," not necessarily a top student. The foundation and local guidance counselors help find and select the recipients. This assures me that students who have not yet shown their full potential but who show promise to succeed at college will be encouraged to apply.
Our first scholar has completed his second year, the second is through year one and the third will start this fall. As the fund grows over time, the scholarship will be available to more students and each will have a reliable source of income for eight semesters.
We have many generous donors in the area who help students in many ways and that is commendable. It is difficult to raise money for and distribute scholarships, and it can be hard to avoid spreading around small amounts of money so everyone gets a bit of help.
But our students need a real boost to help them finish college and move on to successful careers. I ask all who wish to help young people attain their college goals to consider starting a four-year scholarship program of their own. It's an excellent investment in the future.
Nicholas Boraski was a vice president for General Electric in Pittsfield.