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Development team offers bridge to completion

Small funding opportunities can help keep students on road to graduation
University Business, February 2016

It would be difficult to work in higher education and not be aware of the numerous completion initiatives that are underway nationally, all focused on increasing the number of Americans with a college credential.

The voices that usually chime in to share scalable best practices include presidents, provosts, student affairs professionals and faculty. Rarely do my peers in advancement share how we are removing attainment barriers, but the creative thinking and work of fundraising offices are fueling new gains across campuses.

In addition to helping to fund long-term retention and access solutions, there are some simpler problems advancement can help to address. Students today are dropping out of college when a degree is within sight because they can’t afford a required textbook. Some of our commuter students have budgets so lean that a simple car repair can seem an insurmountable barrier to success. And sometimes, the difference between persisting and dropping out may be as little as $200 to $300 in short-term funding. We often hear students tell us, “Even though my room and board is covered, other expenses such as car insurance, personal items and my phone bill consume most of my paychecks.”

These students, who comprise a group larger than most administrators realize, have little or no financial cushion should they face a bump in the road to graduation.

The development office at Hiram College is working closely with other partners on campus to ensure that no student, adult or traditional, limits their future success because of what many of us would classify as minor costs but appear to our students know as immovable obstacles in the path to a degree.

Bridging a gap

Our institution is part of a collective effort in the greater Akron region competing the national Talent Dividend, an effort to increase the number of citizens per thousand with a college degree. The competing city that raises completion rates within the competition timeframe will be awarded a $1 million prize, which is being funded by the Kresge Foundation. All members of our campus community, including my advancement team, were asked to share ways in which we could help the region compete for the prize. We came to the table with a plan for approaching donors to help bridge temporary funding needs for our students—and are pleased with the successes that have followed our creative efforts.

We found these fundraising successes have one common element—telling student stories that explain how simple, low-dollar solutions can make a difference between wearing a cap and gown at commencement and walking away from campus without a diploma. My team and I have successfully destigmatized the struggle to make ends meet and found that addressing these concerns up front have made raising funds easier.

After describing these life-altering choices to our donors, we were pleased they recognized circumstances similar to those they faced in college and came through en masse to make a difference in the lives of deserving students..

Money-saving strategy

Our successes have included advising students on ways to cut book costs. We have created an emergency book loan fund that is overseen by the Dean of Students office and bought copies of particularly high-demand and high-cost books for the library. Realizing that short-term financial issues are prevalent throughout students’ college careers and not unique to freshmen, a number of our board members funded a trustee loan program to provide gap funding that would help junior and senior students finish their degrees.

The Office of Advancement also works with other departments to identify even small funding opportunities that can help deserving students become valuable alumni. We pair low-cost solutions with a lifetime of benefit. And we challenge our peers across the country to speak up and participate the next time their campus brainstorms solutions for short- and long-term completion goals.

Patrick S. Roberts is vice president for development and alumni relations for Hiram College in Ohio.

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