Agency-Funded Scholarships Can Help Homeless Youth Finish College

A happy young graduate.

A broken-down car. A sick childcare provider. A dwindling bank account. For young people supporting themselves through college, these challenges aren't merely bumps in the road. They can be brick walls that keep young people from staying in school.

To help homeless youth overcome these and other common barriers to earning their degrees, Volunteers of America of Eastern Washington & Northern Idaho awards college scholarships with an unusual level of flexiblity. Unlike traditional scholarships, which often go toward tuition or other school expenses, VOA funds can be spent on whatever young people need so they can focus on academics or just get to class.

“A lot of kids tell us, ‘this [scholarship] is why I was able to stay in school. When things got rough, I got your check in the mail, and I could eat, get my bus pass, buy diapers for my baby’,” says President and CEO Marilee Roloff. These scholarships, she says, “can be their backstop.”

Small Staff Investments, Big Rewards

The Spokane, WA, service provider began offering its Turnaround Scholarship for first-year students in 1998, and later created the Trent-Gillespie award to support recipients' sophomore year and beyond. Approximately 40 youth have received the scholarships, including some who received multiple years of funding.

VOA limits scholarships to young people who have used their programs, making it easy to recruit applicants and help them apply. Drop-in center and shelter staff may already be helping these same unaccompanied youth apply for college or financial aid, Roloff says.

Bridget Cannon, VOA's youth services director, says youth workers can also use scholarship applications, particularly those requiring a budget, to discuss financial skill building.

“These youth are still working on the developmental milestones," including the skills they need to be financially savvy, she says. “Let’s [use scholarship applications to] start a broader conversation about money and why they don’t have more savings.”

Programs concerned about their employees’ to-do lists can appoint a committee of donors and volunteers to select recipients and keep in touch across semesters. Involving donors, Cannon says, may even lead to new mentoring relationships.

Roloff says young people’s success stories have far outweighed the time and effort it takes to run the scholarship. One awardee recently graduated from law school, and another started working at VOA to help other teens struggling with homelessness.

Finding Funds

The idea for a scholarship at VOA first arose when two donors approached the agency sharing a similar model from another community, Roloff says. These original donors, as well as the primary backers of the Trent-Gillespie scholarship, have largely continued their financial support. New donors have also emerged after reading about the scholarships’ success.

Donations are pooled into a designated bank account, and VOA accounting staff volunteer a few hours each month to cut checks to students. Turnaround scholars typically receive a single $500 award, and Trent-Gillespie scholars receive $200 to $300 per month across the academic year.

If a youth-serving agency doesn’t have a donor knocking on its door, Roloff says staff should feel comfortable asking for money or making smaller awards until the scholarship gets off the ground.

“What I’ve learned is that education is universally respected,” she says. “People who might not give to social services will give to a scholarship program because they understand the importance of education.”

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