When Tess Branon (above) graduates from Western Carolina University this spring, she’ll have something many of her friends don’t – a student debt load that’s pretty light, thanks to the endowed scholarships she received.
The financial help has allowed Branon to focus on her research and studies in chemistry and biology, enabling her to achieve the kind of college success that has resulted in Branon having her choice of graduate schools to attend. She has worked hard at Western Carolina, to be sure, but she feels lucky that when she needed help, endowments made her scholarships possible. Endowed scholarships are so important to a student’s success that Chancellor David O. Belcher has challenged university supporters to increase their size and number. Endowed scholarships are, Belcher said, the university’s No. 1 philanthropic priority.
“Despite the tuition increases of recent years, Western perennially shows up on the US News & World Report’s list of the most affordable universities in the South,” the chancellor told a crowd of about 1,600 students, officials and others during his installation speech March 29, 2012. “But there are many excellent students who come from modest circumstances and many others whose parents, in this economic climate, have lost their jobs. It doesn’t really matter to them that Western Carolina is one of the most affordable institutions in the South. They still cannot afford to attend. Talent, brain power and ability are terrible things to waste or to thwart, and it is incumbent upon those of us with means to enable these students to attend university.”
That mission is more urgent than ever. The Great Recession prompted the N.C. General Assembly to pull back on support it gives schools in the University of North Carolina system. Western Carolina’s appropriations have decreased by $32.7 million since the 2008-09 academic year. The university has cut spending, increased class size and reduced the number of class choices. But most significantly for students and their parents, it has raised tuition and fees each year in an effort to protect the quality of education at a time of decreased resources from the state. A typical undergraduate student from North Carolina who lives on campus and subscribes to the most popular meal plan will pay $12,349 to attend WCU next academic year, a cost that includes tuition, mandatory fees and average room and board expenses.
That’s a lot of money for most people and certainly for young people. Nearly all of Western Carolina’s students (81 percent) receive financial aid of some sort, but of the 9,361 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in the spring 2013 semester, only about 725 students (7 percent) receive scholarships provided by WCU, said Brenda Gallagher Holcombe ’94, director of university scholarships. The vast majority of students (about 6,480) are forced to seek limited grant funding, obtain loans that can lead to long-term debt upon graduation, or apply for work-study positions that can cut into students’ time for study and extracurricular activities. That’s why the approximately $27 million in scholarship and fellowship endowments that WCU had last academic year should be – and must be – higher, Belcher said.
“We want to increase private scholarship endowments so we can ensure that we continue providing access to higher education for all of our students,” he said. “Our scholarship holdings are not as broad as I’ve seen at other institutions. And I would like to see them grow.”
Many have taken up the chancellor’s challenge. A group of Highlands residents recently endowed a scholarship fund to help Honors College students prepare and compete for prestigious scholarships that include the Goldwater, the Truman and the Rhodes. Annual earnings from the $50,000 endowment, created through $25,000 in gifts from the Center for Life Enrichment at Highlands combined with gifts from individual members of the Honors College’s Advisory Board (composed primarily of Highlands residents), will restore support that was eliminated by the state budget cuts.
Unlike one-time gifts, endowed scholarships are self-perpetuating. Endowed all at once or over a period of time through ongoing contributions, endowments generate scholarship money through the return that the principal yields. The Western Carolina University Foundation, composed of alumni and others, manages foundation endowments in a pooled environment with a broad array of assets. Other endowed funds are overseen by the WCU Endowment Fund Board of Trustees, which is a subset of the WCU Board of Trustees.
University guidelines established by the trustees require a minimum of $10,000 to endow a scholarship. Donors may recommend the criteria for the type of student who qualifies. Scholarships have been established for new and returning students from various Western North Carolina counties, as well as for students in majors that include English, history, mathematics, computer sciences, criminal justice, and art and design. Current endowed scholarships also provide help for student-athletes participating in sports such as football, track, soccer and cross country. Students receive scholarships based on standards that include need, academic qualifications, overall achievements, civic contributions and military service. Scholarships that are not dedicated to specific sets of students help the university serve the broadest spectrum of young people.
Faculty in WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions have launched an effort to raise funds for the Cullowhee Teaching Scholars Initiative, a new program that would provide financial support for education majors as the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program is phased out because of an end to state funding. And the College of Arts and Sciences recently created its Cornerstone Scholarships program to help the college recruit and retain high-achieving, highly qualified students. Acting on the principle that the liberal arts are the cornerstone of success in education and in life, the college is pursuing endowed scholarships over one-time gifts so that the financial aid exists in perpetuity. The college would much rather students receive help than take on sizable student loans.
“A few hundred dollars of debt is thousands of dollars of obligation over the course of a college loan,” said Richard D. Starnes ’92 MA ’94, recently named dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “That can mean a lot to people starting careers or thinking about buying a house or starting a family. In the short term, having a scholarship can mean the difference between buying course materials and supplies or not being able to afford it.”
And having more endowed scholarship funds can mean making a difference for more students. “One-time scholarship money is great because it helps one student or several students. But after it’s spent, it’s gone,” Belcher said. “I am very much about taking the long view and planning for the future of the university. Part of my job is setting up my successors for success. Endowed scholarships are very appealing to me in light of my responsibility to help the university achieve that kind of success.”
Many alumni and friends of the university also are taking the long view. Since Belcher’s call for additional support, 26 new endowed scholarships funds have been established, thanks to more than $1.5 million in gifts and pledges from people such as Elaine Howell ’68. In 1964, when Howell entered Western Carolina, freshmen wore purple and gold beanies. They all marched together in the “Beanie Parade,” a Homecoming event after which they didn’t have to wear the caps on campus anymore. But men had to wear shirts with collars (tucked in) and women had to be in their dorms by 10:30 p.m. every night.
“They locked the doors then, and you were in trouble if you got locked out,” Howell said recently, chuckling at the memory. Her senior year was one of tumultuous change that she is grateful to have spent in a place like Cullowhee. “You didn’t have to worry about anything except making it to class and passing your subjects,” she said.
It’s that gratitude that prompted Howell, who retired in San Antonio after 22 years in the U.S. Air Force, to endow a scholarship at her alma mater. Consideration goes first to a music major (Howell, who played oboe and clarinet at WCU, was one herself). But the scholarship also is open to students majoring in industrial arts and the fine arts – Howell’s tribute to the work of her mother, Mary L. Howell, who taught art in Robbinsville for many years, and her father, John F. Howell, a well-known inventor and mechanic whose drawing of the first moon mission is part of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum collection.
Howell combined her love for Western Carolina and music during Homecoming weekend 2012, when she sat with the chancellor and told him of her plans to fund the scholarship. “Dr. Belcher is a musician, too, and he was very excited that we were getting an endowed scholarship for music,” she said. “Since I’m not married and I don’t have any children, I was thinking I need something for posterity. Leaving an endowed scholarship for the school seemed to be a good way to make sure someone knew that I was once here.”
Alecia Page, president of the Student Government Association, can only dream of the difference that additional scholarship support at Western Carolina would have made in her life. “If I had had more scholarships, I could have focused on my education instead of working multiple jobs to afford it,” said Page, a graduating student from the small Cleveland County town of Earl. She put herself through school, having worked every semester since her freshman year, taking on as many as four jobs at a time and no fewer than two. She’s worked an average of 30 hours a week throughout her college career, on top of the heavy academic load she’s had as an English major minoring in political science.
Page often works so much that she has little energy for the 40 or so hours a week of study needed to support her efforts in the classroom. “Honestly, there were times when I felt I wasn’t even in school because I didn’t have time to focus like I wanted to,” she said. “There were a lot of nights of double shifts and no sleep. It was frustrating for a student who placed study as her No. 1 priority. There were times when I wanted to pack my bags and quit. But that wasn’t an option.”
Although the Office of Financial Aid does not keep statistics about how many students leave the university because of finances, staff members know that it happens all too often. “Sometimes, students may have to leave school due to a lack of understanding, planning, financial resources or eligibility. Early planning and education help students and families develop a strategy to pay for college expenses,” said Trina Orr ’94 MBA ’01, director of financial aid. “However, many times a lack of financial resources may be attributed to students having to pay for school on their own or their parents not being able to provide financial support.”
The steady decreases in state support and subsequent increases in college tuition have resulted in more and more students dropping out for financial reasons, Page said. “To see the looks on their faces – how hard they worked to get to college and how hard they worked while they were here – it’s painful,” she said. “They did all the right things, but at the end of the day, if you can’t afford to come back, you can’t afford to come back. Whenever we lose them, it’s like we’re losing a piece of the university.” That’s why Page said she is encouraged to see the university’s emphasis on raising additional financial resources for student scholarships.
The competition for top students has never been greater, and Western Carolina’s limited scholarship money makes it hard to attract and hold on to North Carolina’s brightest students, said Brian Railsback, dean of the university’s Honors College. “I was talking to the associate dean of the new honors college at East Carolina University,” Railsback said, “and he said they guarantee every student admitted to their college a scholarship. And they offer 20 full rides, too. We’re competing with that.”
Though most of Western Carolina’s 1,320 Honors College students qualify for merit scholarships, a lack of funding means that less than a third of the college’s incoming freshman class actually receives any merit-based scholarship assistance from the college. “You could be the most fantastic student coming out of high school, but we have no full-ride scholarship for that. It’s been a problem,” Railsback said. “When we’re recruiting students, they visit campus and the Honors College and they really like what they see. Then other offers from other universities come in, and you can just sort of tell, some of them are not coming to Western.”
Sometimes, parents of students with high grade-point averages tell him their child is thinking about transferring because he or she is being offered scholarship money not available at Western Carolina. “It really becomes a no-brainer for the parents, looking at how things add up,” Railsback said. Only since February has the Honors College been able to offer money to returning students, but there was only enough funding available to be able to offer scholarships to those who have 4.0 grade-point averages. “If you have a 3.98, obviously you should qualify, but the cutoff is 4.0,” Railsback said. “Clearly we have a long way to go.”
Ken Flynt ’71 is helping the university get there. A WCU alumnus and retired banking executive who “loves Western beyond description,” Flynt started working for the university as an associate dean in the College of Business a few years ago. “At the end of last year, I began to think more about what I could do to support Western and be a bigger contributor to the success of our university,” he said. So he created a scholarship by giving the university some stock that had done well. He endowed it in the name of his son Chad, who died 17 years ago. The scholarship is directed toward sport management students who demonstrate leadership and are substantially involved in university activities.
Flynt, raised in a blue-collar family in Kernersville, believes that by endowing the scholarship, he is giving a student a chance to experience the fullness of intellectual challenge that he experienced at WCU. “I want kids to know that they can come out of poor families, be very successful and make a difference,” he said.
That would describe Rene Gamez Correa ’11, who grew up poor in Mexico before his family moved to Waynesville when he was 14. One of four brothers with a stay-at-home mom and a father who worked construction, Gamez Correa remembers his first two years in the United States as “extremely frustrating.” He had difficulty with the language and with making friends. He longed for his family back home, including an aunt who would let him watch her do accounting work.
Despite the challenges, he did well in school and received scholarships to study at WCU, where he earned degrees in accounting and Spanish. Scheduled to receive his graduate degree in accounting this summer, Gamez Correa believes the scholarships made all the difference, not only in his college career but also in his life.
“If it wasn’t for these scholarships, I think I would have gone back to Mexico, to be honest,” he said. College is cheaper there but job prospects are worse. “You need to have connections to get good jobs there,” he said. “Here, if you work hard and prove that you’re qualified to get the job, you can get it.”
Gamez Correa has done just that, landing an accountant’s job that is waiting for him at Dixon Hughes Goodman in Asheville when he graduates. He recently became a U.S. citizen – another thing that might not have happened had the scholarships not allowed him to attend WCU. “The people that support the scholarships make a big difference to people that really need the help,” he said. “I’m pretty thankful.”
While Gamez Correa was finishing high school in Waynesville, Adam Ray was wrapping up his prep career in Cullowhee. The son of a university employee in Facilities Management, Ray is now at the university majoring in history and social sciences education. A Teaching Fellow, he receives additional financial assistance in the form of a Staff Senate scholarship and an education scholarship endowed in memory of Ed and Bertha Henson Reed, whose professional lives made an impact on Jackson County in the early 1900s. The Reed scholarship fund was made possible through gifts from the estate of Lucile Reed Edwards ’43 in honor of her parents.
Ray has difficulty imagining what his academic career would be like without the financial help the scholarships have provided. The assistance and money he earned working as a resident assistant on campus freed him up to spend a summer studying German language and culture in Germany. The scholarships “have given me the opportunity to pursue my academic endeavors wholeheartedly,” he said. “They have allowed me to focus on what I need to do. It would be much more difficult without this help. I am definitely grateful.”
Students understand the pressures on their peers. The Sport Management Association has endowed a scholarship with $10,000 raised from the careful management and effective promotion of the Mountain Heritage Day 5-K race, which it stages every year on campus. The College of Business will award the scholarship for the first time in April 2014.
Every year after the race, the Sport Management Association puts profits into the endowment. That will not only grow the scholarship funds but also will inspire association members to make the race bigger and better – excellent goals and teaching tools for students studying sport management, said A.J. Grube, head of the Department of Business Administration and Law and Sport Management. Planning the race takes hundreds of hours, requiring the kind of work ethic that the association wants to see in the recipient of its scholarship. “I’m pretty impressed with our students,” Grube said. “For students to recognize other students means they value excellence.”
Students in the organization say they are glad to have been able to grow the endowed fund over the years. “We just wanted to give back and provide something for students that can help them be a part of our association,” said Zach Jordan, association president and a senior from Cortland, Ohio. “With the price of college and the economy the way it is, any little bit of aid can help.”
Reasons for endowing scholarships range from small to large. Stephen Edmonds endowed a scholarship with the hopes of growing a new, exciting industry in Western North Carolina. Edmonds, who with his wife, Cathy, moved to Franklin several years ago, hopes to establish a center of gas turbine design in and around Cullowhee. He believes Western North Carolina could be to the gas turbine industry what Silicon Valley became for computer chips. The timing, he said, couldn’t be better.
Power generation companies are causing a surge in the gas turbine industry. Newly tapped sources of natural gas nationwide are driving intense demand for gas turbine engines, which produce energy more cleanly than coal and less controversially than nuclear. The demand for gas turbine engineers will get nothing but stronger, Edmonds, a longtime industry executive, said. With the endowment and other endeavors, he’s working to create a national “center of excellence” for gas turbine engineering at WCU’s Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology.
“Cathy and I had several options for helping the university,” he said. “We could have given money to develop labs, a one-time gift that would have bought equipment that would be useful to a limited number of future students. Or we could create an endowed scholarship that would help students for a long time. That has a longer-term benefit, and I thought it was a great idea. To have students who couldn’t afford to come to Western be able to come because of this scholarship, that’s very exciting to us.”
Endowed scholarships provide far more than just financial help. Tess Branon, who will graduate with bachelor’s degrees in biology and chemistry, said receiving the GlaxoSmithKline Women in Science Scholarship for three years and the Anastasia “Stacy” O’Connell Research Scholarship for one has helped her on many levels.
The latter scholarship, given to a student interested in pursuing further study in fields related to breast cancer, helped guide her research at WCU. The GlaxoSmithKline scholarship allowed her to meet regularly with a mentor, a female scientist, at GlaxoSmithKline. Branon, from Apex, spent a lot of time at the corporation’s campus in the Research Triangle. “I got to meet people in the industry and learned steps they took to get where they are and what it’s like to work day-to-day for a pharmaceutical company,” she said. Branon also got more immediate help from her scholarships. She mentioned them in her applications to graduate schools at Columbia University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of California at Berkeley and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was accepted by all of them, and now she’s visiting each to decide which one to attend.
“Everyone in science knows GlaxoSmithKline. And the O’Connell research scholarship looks great on a resume,” she said.
Endowed scholarships are about more than money, Belcher believes. They’re about connection and continuity, about making sure that the financial help that’s here now is there later for students like Tess Branon, Adam Ray and Rene Gamez Correa. Belcher, who with his wife has endowed a scholarship, has no doubt that what he calls “the Western Carolina family” – alumni, friends, and businesses and industries that the university has worked with – will respond to the challenge to endow more scholarships.
“They believe in Western. They bleed purple,” the chancellor said. “We have an audience out there that really believes in the university and understands the significance of this call to action.”
Paul Clark is a freelance writer, editor and photographer based in Weaverville.
Lt. Col. Elaine Howell Endowed Scholarship Fund (for music, fine arts or industrial arts students)
Donor: Lt. Col. Elaine Howell ’68
John H. Wakeley Endowed Scholarship Fund (for psychology students)
Donor: Sue Wakeley
Wolfe Endowed History Scholarship Fund
Donors: Frederick ’85 and Buttercup Wolfe ’85
James A. Lewis Endowed Scholarship Fund (for history students)
Established in honor of retirement of James Lewis through gifts from numerous donors
Brady Singleton and William Grady Anderson Endowed Scholarship Fund (for graduates of Hiwassee Dam High School in Murphy)
Donor: William Grady Anderson ’49
Gaither Keener Family Endowed Scholarship (for Honors College education majors) and Curtis Wood Endowed Scholarship (for history majors)
Donor: Gaither Keener ’72
The Stephen and Cathy Edmonds Endowed Scholarship Fund (for engineering students)
Donor: Stephen Edmonds
Sharon Jacques Nursing Endowed Scholarship Fund
Donor: Sharon Jacques
A scholarship for students in the College of Business
Donor: Roland Johnson ’76
RICOH USA Inc. Endowed Scholarship Fund (for professional sales or computer information systems students)
Donor: RICOH USA Inc.
Chad M. Flynt Endowed Scholarship Fund (for sport management students)
Donor: Kenneth Flynt ’71
Susan Riddle Higgins Endowed Scholarship Fund (for accounting students)
Donors: Merrell Riddle MAEd ’73 EdS ’76 and Winston Riddle MAEd ’73 EdS ’76
The Gurney and Ann Chambers Scholarship Fund (for student-athletes in the teacher education program)
Donors: Gurney Chambers ’61 and Ann Chambers
David A. and Kay Slattery Shapiro Scholarship for Specialists in Fluency Disorders
Donors: David A. and Kay Slattery Shapiro
Norman West Endowed Scholarship Fund (for student-athletes in the College of Business)
Donor: Norman West ’68
A scholarship for students in the Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology
Donors: Grace and Mark Battle
The Linda and Alden McCracken Endowed Scholarship Fund (for student-athletes)
Donor: Alden McCracken’ 58
A scholarship for students in the Honors College
Donor: Angi Brenton
The Hedy White Endowed Scholarship Fund (for psychology students)
Donor: Carol Taylor
A scholarship to support the women’s basketball program
Donor: Donna Winbon ’80
Center for Life Enrichment Honors College Scholars Endowed Scholarship Fund
Donor: Center for Life Enrichment
A scholarship for students involved in student leadership initiatives
Donors: Stephanie Goodell ’92 and her mother
WCU Sport Management Association Endowed Scholarship Fund
Donor: WCU Sport Management Association
Elizabeth (Beth) Tyson Lofquist Endowed Scholarship Fund (for middle grades education students)
Donor: Beth Tyson Lofquist ’78 MAEd ’79 EdS ’88
The David and Susan Belcher Scholarship Fund (for Honors College students)
Donors: David and Susan Belcher