The cost of a college education has long been identified as a barrier that keeps too many students from pursuing higher education. But the success of the state’s Mitchell scholars shows that support — from before college starts through the postgraduation job search — can be as helpful as financial assistance.
When he decided not to seek re-election to the U.S. Senate in 1994, George Mitchell used more than $1 million that had been donated to his campaign to begin a scholarship program for Maine students. In 1999, the program was expanded, through an anonymous gift and $100,000 Sen. Mitchell received as part of the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, to offer scholarships to one senior from each of the state’s high schools.
This year, the Mitchell program marks the 10th year since its expansion and the creation of an accompanying institute to examine college access. The first innovation of the program is that it collects lots of information from the scholars (as well as those who applied) and tracks them through college and beyond.
From this, it is clear that the students selected for Mitchell scholarships face long odds when it comes to college success. Nearly two-thirds are from families where neither parent holds a college degree, compared with 45 percent nationally. And they are twice as likely as their national peers to be from families with annual incomes below $50,000.
Despite this, Mitchell scholars are more likely to complete college than the average Maine college student.
Clearly, the $1,250 annual scholarship isn’t enough to explain this difference. Rather, it has to do with the program’s emphasis on community service and building networks. To be chosen as a Mitchell scholar, a student must demonstrate a history of community service, something they continue in college.
They also become part of a college community even before classes begin. At a summer brunch, scholarship recipients meet others headed to the same campus to begin to build relationships. It is also helpful for parents to meet other families sending a child off to college, often for the first time.
Receptions at the dozen Maine campuses that most scholars attend welcome them in the fall. This is also an opportunity for Mitchell scholars to meet important school administrators who can improve their college years. The scholars are encouraged to keep in touch with one another and to contact campus staff or someone at the institute if they are having problems. Instead of taking a scholarship away from a student who is having academic problems, which some programs do, the Mitchell staff ensures the student finds help to get back on track. As a result, 79 percent of the scholars graduate within five years, compared to 39 percent of Maine college students.
Mitchell scholars can also receive financial assistance for career-focused summer jobs in Maine, and they have access to a growing alumni network to help with job searches.
This comprehensive approach to supporting students throughout college is clearly working and is a model for other scholarship and retention programs.