This Community Foundation Gives College Scholarships to Students Starting in Fourth Grade

February 25, 2019

By Jamese Carrell, Member Services Associate

Launched in 2016, the Community Foundation of Wabash County (CFWC) Early-Award Scholarship Program gives college scholarship dollars to students in fourth through eighth grade who finish academic assignments, complete college-going activities, or make small deposits in their 529 college savings accounts (CSAs). To date, this program in Indiana has awarded more than $200,000 in scholarships to approximately 1,800 students. CFWC holds the scholarships in a fund for the benefit of each student until they matriculate at a postsecondary institution. The oldest students who have participated in the program are now in 10th grade.

To design the program, CFWC asked elementary and middle school teachers the following question: “If you could give awards to any of your students to encourage them to succeed in school, what behaviors would you recognize?”

Guided by the teachers’ responses, the CFWC program awards scholarships to fourth grade students based on academic activities. For example, a student who completes 100 percent of their math assignments with 70 percent proficiency can earn up to $20 each quarter. As the student progresses into the eighth grade, the awards shift to focus on college-going activities such as completing career inventories, writing mock essays, profiling colleges, conducting mock interviews, and submitting applications for Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars Program.

“Regarding academic achievement, it is important to note that we do not award outcomes,” CFWC Executive Director Patty Grant said. “This approach is based on the research about incentives. Better to award inputs, the behaviors such as completing your school work or learning to read, than to reward the outcome on a standardized test score,” Ms. Grant said.

Students can also earn scholarship dollars by saving small amounts throughout the program. Families that save $20 during a semester also earn a $20 matching scholarship. If they save $20 during both semesters of the year, they receive an additional $10 bonus. In total, CFWC provides up to $830 in scholarships during the five years of the program, and CFWC mails quarterly progress reports and scholarship fund statements to parents. But getting students enrolled into a 529 plan is only one part of the equation. “If we believe in the asset effect to change how students think of their future, just enrolling students is not quite enough. We have to find ways to engage students with those accounts and help them think about their future,” Ms. Grant said.

How did this early scholarship program come about? In 2012, CFWC prioritized educational attainment as the county’s highest need. Located in north central Indiana, Wabash County is home to about 33,000 residents, and just 28 percent of adults 25 years and older have completed a two-year or four-year college degree or industry certification. The local economy is predominantly agricultural and manufacturing with a large share of low-wage, low-skill jobs in low-growth fields. Poverty rates are high with 35 percent of children age five and under living in poverty, and the population of school-age children is declining. Thus, CFWC determined that it must develop programs to move the needle on educational attainment as a means to alleviate poverty and support economic development.

Around the same time the CFWC prioritized educational attainment, the Wabash County YMCA in partnership with local public schools launched the Wabash County Promise (now Promise Indiana), which helped families with children in kindergarten through third grade sign up for Indiana’s 529 CollegeChoice savings plan. The YMCA was “very, very effective in their approach, enrolling more than half of their target children in Indiana’s 529 plan in their first year,” Ms. Grant said. The CFWC funded the YMCA program and was subsequently invited by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation to build on the success of the Y’s program by developing the Early-Award Scholarship Program for fourth through eighth grades.

Like many community foundations, CFWC already had about $8 million in endowed assets designated to award traditional scholarships to high school graduates.  “We appreciate the financial support afforded by our traditional scholarship endowments. They are very helpful to many students,” Ms. Grant said. “But the Foundation has long recognized the limitations of traditional financial aid, which is awarded at the end of the education pipeline to students who have successfully navigated grades K-12. Traditional scholarships, however, have a limited ability to shape identity or incentivize learning in younger ages.  They are simply too far into the future to incent younger students to success, such as encouraging a fourth grader to turn in all of their reading assignments. Further and sadly, another limitation of our traditional scholarships is that they have a limited ability to broadly serve children from low-income families, despite the best intentions of our donors. Far too often these children are not in the applicant pool for traditional scholarships, having concluded at a young age that education and specifically post-secondary education is not for them.”

CFWC Early-Award Scholarship Program seeks to integrate the “asset effect” of CSAs to shape college-bound identities and the power of incentives to encourage learning that lead to school success. The earlier that a student is able to establish stronger academic habits as well as personal and careers goals, the better able the student is to develop a college-going mindset. Alternatively, the CFWC hypothesizes that by the time a student reaches 12th grade, it may be too late to develop a college-going identity. By offering scholarship awards early, CFWC believes they are deepening and broadening their scholarship support.

The Early-Award Scholarship Program is being evaluated by Dr. William Elliott, Director of the Center for Assets, Education, and Inclusion at the University of Michigan. Preliminary findings suggest that the Early-Award Scholarship Program has a positive association with children’s state assessment scores in math and reading proficiency, after accounting for the potential of selection bias. Not only do children in the Early-Award Scholarship Program score higher than children who do not have a CSA, they also score higher than children with a CSA but no Early-Award Scholarship account. Further, with respect to building assets and stimulating savings, the combining of scholarships and college savings account programs has resulted in families with CSAs and Early Award Scholarship Funds to save more frequently and to save more on average than children with only a CSA.

More studies are underway, which, in addition to analyzing the effect of the Early Award Scholarship Program on family savings and academic outcomes, will examine the impact on parental expectations and children’s health and identity.

For More Information

To learn more about the community foundation’s work, watch this webinar led by Community Foundation of Wabash County Executive Director Patty Grant, where she shared the “nuts and bolts” of this program, its incentives structure and partnerships, and insight on how NCAN members can start this work on their own. Want to talk further about early-award scholarships and community foundations engaged in this work? Please contact Patty at or by phone at 260-982-4824.

(Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash)

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