Suburban community college foundations' scholarship amounts well below national average
Suburban community college foundations place significant emphasis on providing scholarships to students, but the actual tuition aid given by the taxpayer-supported fundraising groups often falls well below the national average.
That's based on a Daily Herald analysis of federally required financial reports of foundations at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, College of Lake County in Grayslake, Elgin Community College, Harper College in Palatine, McHenry County College in Crystal Lake, Oakton Community College in Des Plaines and Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove.
And because foundation staff members are college employees, many taxpayers of suburban community colleges are paying more to operate the foundation than what that foundation is awarding to students. That means it's costing taxpayers extra to give students free or discounted educations using donated funds.
Last year, the average individual scholarship amount provided by community college foundations nationwide was $1,126, according to a study of community college foundations by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. But in the suburbs, only the CLC Foundation's scholarship awards surpassed the national level at $1,132.
The COD Foundation awarded the least per recipient at $532, on average. The foundation gave 799 students a total of $425,442 last year. The COD Foundation reported assets totaling $14.5 million in 2014, the most of the seven suburban community college foundations. Its finances recently have come under scrutiny by federal investigators. A federal grand jury issued subpoenas for COD Foundation records after questions about the foundation's spending came to light, including $102,257 spent by COD President Robert Breuder over four years. COD Foundation spokesman Matt Butterfield defended the organization's financial activities and noted that besides the scholarships, the foundation gave the college more than $1 million last year for a "variety of uses," including funds for the campus arts center, radio station and Center for Entrepreneurship.
Butterfield said another 16 students received some of the $92,338 awarded to COD faculty and staff members through the foundation's "Resource for Excellence" grant program, but he could not say how much.
Additionally, the CASE study found an average of 3.9 percent of community college students nationally received assistance from their schools' foundations.
Among the seven suburban community colleges, none reached that level last year. Oakton came closest with 3.3 percent of the student body receiving scholarships from the foundation. Conversely, only 1.2 percent of students at McHenry County College received foundation financial support.
Katrina McGuire, the recently hired executive director of the Friends of McHenry County College Foundation, said just 80 students out of 6,742 received scholarships from the foundation last year. She said part of the problem is students' lack of awareness of the foundation and strict guidelines that govern funding eligibility.
Combined, the seven foundations have assets totaling nearly $55 million, according to the organizations' financial reports. But they awarded less than $2 million in scholarships last year, or 3.6 percent of the value of all the funds.
"There's not an institutional standard," said Brian Flahaven, director of foundation programs at CASE. "While scholarships are one aspect of what foundations do, it's certainly a high priority, if not the top fundraising priority."
Flahaven said he would expect a community college foundation to award about 4 percent to 5 percent of its value each year as a rule of thumb.
Butterfield said the COD Foundation board has targeted 5.5 percent of its endowment to "scholarships and programs benefiting the college" this year. In 2014, COD Foundation scholarships to students totaled just 2.9 percent of the foundation's assets, according to the federal financial report.
Officials at Harper College expect the level of giving through the school's foundation to soar in about four years. The college announced its "Promise Scholarship" program last month that will award local public high school graduates two free years of education at Harper as long as the students meet grade, attendance and public service requirements throughout their high school career.
Harper spokesman Phil Burdick said the college's board of trustees approved $5 million to help fund the program, but the foundation has to match that level.
"The foundation has to raise $5 (million) to $7 million to make this thing work," Burdick said. "But they have four years to raise all that money. They're as much of a driver of this as the college."
It's unclear what effect Harper's free tuition program will have on staffing at the foundation, which already employs eight. The salaries and benefits of college employees who work for the foundation already eclipse the $272,059 the Harper Foundation awarded in scholarships in 2013, the most recent year available for Harper's financial reports.
The CASE study showed community college foundations averaged fewer than five full-time employees nationally in 2014. Only foundations at Harper, CLC and COD staffed more than the national average. COD's foundation led the pack with 10 employees, according to its website. Salaries for those 10 employees exceeded $500,000 total.
"Administrative costs are less than 10 percent of the annual budget, an excellent ratio for a nonprofit foundation," Butterfield said.
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