Donors want to help community college students with basics

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Capital News Service

LANSING – Private donations and charitable gifts are up for community colleges across the country, a new survey finds, and some in Michigan say more donors want to help students meet their basic needs beyond tuition.

Community colleges received 52.5% more money in voluntary support in 2021 than in 2020, according to the annual national survey by the Voluntary Support of Education program at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

Six out of 28 Michigan public community colleges responded to the survey, but only three also responded in 2020, allowing for a year-to-year comparison. Of those, support increased for Monroe County Community College but dropped for Schoolcraft College and Macomb Community College. 

In the 12 months that ended last June 30, Henry Ford College received $1,870,880, Monroe County Community College received $830,387, Northwestern Michigan College received $4,291,009, Schoolcraft received $617,648, and Macomb Community College received $872,629, the survey found.

Henry Ford’s greatest support came from foundation donations, ​​$1,297,000, but the other colleges’ biggest contributions came from “other individuals.” The categories excluded from “other individuals” are alumni, parents, foundations, corporations and organizations.

According to officials of Monroe County Community College and Northwestern Michigan Community College, based in Traverse City, most donations came from community members.

“In general, giving has declined in the number of donors, but we are seeing a stabilized and increasing amount in giving,” said Joshua Myers, the executive director of the Foundation at Monroe County Community College. “For example, in calendar year 2020, we had our number of donors decrease by 42%, but the gifts that came in increased by 22%.”

Fewer people donate, particularly when the economy struggles, which makes sense as lower- and middle-income individuals are less able to give, Myers said.

He said donors with higher incomes “see us as a conduit to give back to the community. It was not just about education, but keeping our community afloat.”

While meeting students’ nontuition needs hasn’t always been a primary concern of colleges and donors, colleges are increasingly receptive to ensuring students have access to affordable housing, food, child care, transportation, bills and other needs they struggle with, according to Brandy Johnson.

Johnson is the president of the Michigan Community College Association. 

She previously served as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s education policy adviser and, most recently, served as a manager of the Office of Sixty by 30 in the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. That program’s goal is to increase the number of working-age adults with a skill certificate or college degree from 49% today to 60% by 2030. 

“One very noticeable shift I have seen philanthropically is donors and philanthropists thinking beyond tuition,” Johnson said. “There’s been a great awakening to the true nontuition costs of attendance.”

The process of charitable giving by individual donors has become more flexible over the years, according to Johnson, as “scholarship-awarding entities can make awards that will cover housing, child care, books, fees, utilities” and other expenses.

That’s proven true for Monroe County Community College, as it rolled out many resources to assist with nontuition needs.

Myers said, “It’s no longer just academic expenses that we’re concerned with, it’s all the inputs. Thirty-one percent of our students showed signs of low or very low food security, so over the pandemic we opened a food pantry on campus and provide food cards to our students for emergency situations.” 

He said that in a different survey just for Monroe’s students, 43% showed they had housing insecurity, “so we’ve strengthened partnerships with our local housing commission. Thirty-six percent said total debt is overwhelming, so we have been strengthening financial literacy resources for them, as well as emergency support and regular scholarship support.”

And Johnson said, “Thanks to state appropriations and the property tax that community colleges are able to levy within their community, we’ve been able to successfully keep tuition relatively low and affordable in Michigan.”

“But in doing so, there isn’t enough funding to support all of the other wrap-around services that are necessary for students’ success,” she said.

A Northwestern Michigan College official said charitable contributions make education affordable for many students.

“More than 50% apply for financial aid, and thanks to charitable support, more than $1 million is awarded to approximately 1,200 in student scholarships each year,” said Rebecca Teahen, the associate vice president for resource development and executive director of the college’s NMC Foundation.

“Supporting the “whole college” is essential to ensuring we meet the needs of our students and community now and into the future, from (Wi-Fi) ‘hot-spots’ to scholarships and from experiential learning all the way through water studies programs,” she said.

According to Teahen, the college is doing well in contributions.

“Northwestern Michigan is fortunate to be located in a region that seems to have a very healthy culture of philanthropy,” she said. “The NMC Foundation has a well-established track record of success, thanks to the inspiring generosity of our community and NMC family. 

“Despite the many challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, philanthropic support remains strong,” she said.

The Community College Association and Henry Ford both support Whitmer’s budget proposal for 2022-23, which includes a 5% ongoing increase and a 5% one-time increase in funds for community college operations. 

It also includes $200 million for higher education campus infrastructure, technology, equipment and maintenance, with around $58 million that would go to community colleges if the Legislature passes Whitmer’s proposal.

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