New scholarship takes aim at financial barriers

Published 9:15 am Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Riverland Community College recently announced Cycles for Success, a new scholarship program that is a milestone in the history of the college and especially significant because of its transformative effect on education locally.

The Hormel Foundation helped make the program possible by funding the new Cycles for Success scholarship program with $1 million over the next five years.

Cycles for Success inspires students at Austin and Pacelli High Schools to graduate and earn a Riverland college education. A college education that provides local employers with a skilled workforce in high-wage, high-demand occupations is critical to employers’ success. Educating young people is a prudent investment in the area’s workforce, economic and community development.

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The program’s goals are designed to empower students with financial barriers to enroll at Riverland and complete their college education. While some scholarship recipients may pursue additional education after they complete their education at Riverland, Cycles for Success funds Riverland programs of study only.

One hundred percent of The Hormel Foundation funding will go to students as scholarship awards. The program funds graduating high school students who typically could not pursue a postsecondary education because of financial barriers. The program focuses primarily on assisting “traditionally underrepresented students” within the middle 50 percent of their class ranking because they have few other resources available to them.

Riverland focuses on these students because of some startling realities facing our region. According to Annie Levenson-Falk, policy coordinator for the Citizens League, while Minnesota’s need for skilled workers is increasing, the number of Minnesotans prepared to fill those jobs is decreasing:

1. Between 2002 and 2010, the number of jobs requiring some higher education and providing a living wage increased 21 percent.

2. The number of college graduates leaving the workforce will increase as the baby boom generation begins to retire; by 2020, Minnesota will have more retirees than schoolchildren for the first time in history.

3. During the same period, the number of high school graduates will decline by 10.3 percent, and the number of college graduates will decline by 12 percent.

Rural Minnesota faces the daunting challenge of a 20 percent decline in overall high school students between 2005 and 2015 due to declining populations. These population trends mean that Minnesota will soon have too few qualified workers to fill the jobs available. In order to meet coming workforce demands, more students must graduate from high school, complete a higher education program, and be prepared to participate in the workforce. Cycles for Success addresses these critical workforce issues locally in partnership with Austin K-12 systems in a comprehensive, integrated manner that is uncommon in rural America.

The Hormel Foundation’s support of Cycles for Success is an extraordinarily generous strategy for filling funding gaps. It illustrates the foundation directors’ support for improving access to postsecondary education for Austin’s high school students. This support will enhance the efforts of college and school officials to improve high school graduation rates, students’ readiness for college-level courses, and college students’ retention and success rates.

Terrence Leas is the president of Riverland Community College. His column appears monthly.