High Hopes Riding on Scholarship Gala

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For high school seniors everywhere, the only thing that may loom larger than heading to college is the ever-escalating price tag associated with higher education.

However, each year, about 200 Alexandria graduates get to see their portion of that burden shrink a little bit in some cases, just enough to make college a reality because of the grants administered by the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria.

The fund, like other philanthropic, nonprofit enterprises elsewhere, depends upon donations large and small. Last year, the fund handed out $778,365 in scholarships to first-time recipients and renewal aid to students still in school. It will give out a similar amount this year.

But Susan Yowell, SFAs director, said the national recession has lent an air of uncertainty to the groups fundraising efforts.
The vast majority of the money for the grants each year comes from one of two main fundraising drives, a fall telethon and the annual scholarship gala each spring. Organizers are expecting about 500 people for this years gala on Saturday.

The results of the gala will play a significant part in deciding the scholarship amount that can be given out next year, Yowell said.

Weve built up a very loyal donor base for this event, and we feel very fortunate that they have remained loyal to us even in a very difficult economic climate, she said. Some people arent able to give at as high of a level over the past year in particular, but theyre still really supporting us.

Yowell said over the course of the four or five years leading up to the current fiscal year, there was a huge increase in the total value of donations, but this year contributions have been down a bit.

Beyond decreased donations, the economic downturn has hit the funds investments and led to unrealized gains, Yowell said.
Last year, the gala raised about $350,000 for the general fund. Essentially, SFA provides scholarships based on its criteria of need and merit from the general fund, but also administers dozens more funded privately and based on criteria set up by the donors.

Since 1986, the fund has provided $5.5 million in scholarships to T.C. Williams graduates based on merit and need, according to the funds website.

Scholarships that come out of SFAs general fund range from $2,000 to $5,000 a year, with some special grants, initiated during the funds 20th anniversary in 2006, that offer $5,000 a year for four years.

While SFAs continued and sizable effort helps hundreds of T.C. grads each year with new and renewed scholarships, the current economy is forcing more prospective college students to consider attending in-state schools instead of more expensive colleges out of state, or follow the most debt-free path to a college degree, according to Laura Newton-Cotto, T.Cs guidance director.
Financial issues are a big concern for parents and students this year, Newton-Cotto said. A lot more students are applying to in-state universities for that reason and their decisions reflect that as well.

In many cases, students are looking to stay very close to home, at community colleges where they can live at home, pay a little less for tuition and also avoid room and board costs.

Newton-Cotto said that under existing agreements between Northern Virginia Community College and other state universities, students who complete a two-year associate degree have a better chance at getting into the University of Virginia, William and Mary and Virginia Tech.

Overall, I think many of the students might be thinking more long-term, that they might go to graduate school and it would behoove them to play it smart now so that they dont have to pay more later, Newton-Cotto said. Now, I think kids are starting to think more about how much debt they want to get into for their college education.

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