Proposed scholarship would help graduates in Freeborn County earn education for free at Riverland

Published 4:50 pm Wednesday, November 2, 2022

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Planning for a new initiative is underway that could provide two years of free community college education to graduates of Albert Lea, Glenville-Emmons and Alden-Conger high schools. 

The hope for the Freeborn County Community Promise Scholarship is to encourage high school graduates to reach their career and educational goals, stay local and gain exposure and experience in area businesses, said Janelle Koepke, dean of institutional advancement with Riverland Community College. 

Koepke and Albert Lea Economic Development Agency Executive Director Phillip Johnson presented about the scholarship — which is a partnership between Riverland, ALEDA, Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce, business and industry partners, and the three high schools — in a workshop with the Freeborn County Board of Commissioners last week. 

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Koepke said the criteria to qualify for the scholarship is still in the works, but current proposals call for the high school graduates to have either a GPA of 2.5 or higher, an ACT test score of 18 or higher, an ASVAB test score of 31 or higher or a still-to-be-determined Accuplacer test score. Students must be graduates of one of the three high schools and begin attending Riverland within a year of their graduation.  

She said criteria may change as funds are raised to support the scholarship, and the intent will always be to set the criteria to ensure that as many students as possible are able to access the scholarship. Depending on when the funding is raised, the program could start with the class of 2023 or class of 2024. Students graduating prior to the starting class will not be eligible for the scholarship but would be encouraged to apply for other scholarships available through Riverland.

Through the Freeborn County Community Promise Scholarship, students would apply for funding through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid program first, and the Community Promise Scholarship would pick up the remaining gap not covered by federal or other student aid. 

Students would be able to attend any of the three Riverland campuses. 

Riverland offers more than 100 programs of study, including careers in everything from automotive repair and transportation to construction, health care, information technology, public safety, liberal arts and sciences, among others. 

She said they have learned from other communities that already have a similar scholarship in place and referenced The Hormel Foundation Austin Assurance Scholarship that supports 100 to 125 students per year and that has assisted 541 students since 2019. She said the program has been found to attract first-generation college students and people who never thought college was possible. 

She also referenced programs in Pine City and Red Wing.

Koepke said they hope the program will help grow the local workforce. 

Riverland is committed to career and community connections, she said, including learn-and-earn programs with local businesses and other connections with Riverland programs and business partners. The college will host and encourage students in the Community Promise program to attend career exploration events each year, where contributors to the scholarship will be invited to highlight their business and employment opportunities. Students will also be encouraged to participate in community volunteer activities to foster community engagement. 

Koepke said the group hopes to reach their funding goal of $308,000 for the first year, and the Riverland Foundation, ALEDA and Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce have already committed $80,000 per year for five years. 

The goal for the second year is $535,000. 

Contributors will be included in the promotion of the scholarship, will be invited to the career exploration event and will be included on a partnership wall at the Albert Lea campus. 

Koepke said currently an average of about 57 students from all three high schools have attended Riverland in the fall each year after their high school graduation since 2018. The scholarship goal is for 80 students a year. 

Fifth District Commissioner Ted Herman asked if they would be able to make sure the students who participated worked in Albert Lea upon completion, and Koepke said while that cannot be required, they will work hard to build pathways and to help the students see a place for themselves in the community in their career path. 

First District Commissioner Brad Edwin also talked about adding students from NRHEG who live in the county. 

Johnson said they want the initiative to include all of the county. It will serve as not only an investment into the youth in the county but also in the families looking to move here. 

He said his goal when starting the initiative was to get the ball rolling, but to keep it running, that will most likely call for the organizations involved to incorporate funding annually into their budgets. 

At the end of the day, the program for him was no different than strengthening health care or child care and will serve as a benefit package to help the community move forward. He was excited about the opportunity to help students learn more about the jobs available in their own community. 

Third District Commissioner John Forman said he was involved in three separate scholarships for students at the technical college level and asked if it would be advantageous for other programs to give those funds to this program. 

Johnson said the organizers would love it if it worked for their program. 

Second District Commissioners Dan Belshan said he thought it would benefit the students to “have some skin in the game,” and Koepke said the scholarship would go toward tuition, but books and fees, as well as living expenses would not be included. 

Anyone interested in finding out more about the program or in making a contribution can contact Koepke at