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History of Helping: Black Churches Have Tradition of Giving College Scholarships

The United States has a long history of churches and other religious organizations giving money to youngsters seeking a college education. Such financial support has been particularly instrumental in the lives of African-Americans, whose denominations and local congregations have helped fund post-secondary education for high school graduates since Blacks first gained access to college campuses.

Churches have raised funds in a variety of ways, from fish fries, cake walks and ice cream socials to budget line items, a special category on offering envelopes and impromptu “love” offerings for students who need last-minute help with books, transportation or incidentals.

A scholarship from church helps Shaun Ingram and his twin sister, Sherita, pay for college in Ohio.A scholarship from church helps Shaun Ingram and his twin sister, Sherita, pay for college in Ohio.

Whether $250 or $2,500, churches large and small, urban and rural, continue to help ease what can be a major financial burden. Their backing is a continuation of the history of the Black Church as an institution that endeavors to meet the needs of Black people in every aspect of life, and sees education in particular as key to upward mobility.

Since the establishment of historically Black colleges and universities, denominations such as Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal – which founded a number of the HBCUs – have provided institutional support while many local congregations give directly to their youngsters, noted Dr. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., the James S. McDonnell distinguished university professor at Princeton University.

“For Black churches, education has been a paramount goal,” he said. “Local churches have supported education as a primary vehicle to aspiration for the next generation. It’s been important particularly for rural communities where kids went off and went away to college.”

In Black churches, scholarship funds are as common as food pantries, with awards often disbursed in the spring at a formal presentation in front of the congregation and usually for the first year of school.

Sometimes the amount is a few hundred, enough to cover some books, meals or transportation. Other times, the amounts are more substantial, often depending on factors such as a church’s membership size and the number of students who receive money.

“The more we invest in or students, the greater the dividends,” said Rev. Nelson B. Rivers II, pastor of Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston.

Rivers, who graduated from Wilberforce University 50 years ago and served for 20 years on its board of trustees, currently has several of his young congregants enrolled at his alma mater. Other students have gone on to Hampton University and Howard University.

His church, which has about 800 members created “Diamond Minds” a scholarship initiative that provides up to $1,000 to student recipients.

The money, he said, “goes for books, but sometimes it’s getting them there,” he said.

For twins Shaun and Sherita Ingram of Ohio, the $400 scholarships from their home church, Hosack Street Baptist Church in Columbus, have helped make a difference as they pay various school-related expenses. The freshmen also are receiving family-sponsored scholarships and federal aid.

Sherita, who graduated from Reynoldsburg High School’s health science and human services academy, is studying nursing at Bowling Green State University and plans to become a nurse anesthetist. She’s gotten active in SMART, a campus peer mentoring program for students of color that promotes academic achievement.

Shaun, who graduated from their high school’s STEM academy, is involved in Younglife and Campus Crusade student faith organizations at Miami University of Ohio and joined the rowing team. He’s studying biophysics with a premed emphasis and plans to become a doctor.

The church scholarship “has absolutely been helpful,” said Shaun, who also received a merit scholarship from Miami.

“I’m very blessed,” he added. “I think college is a great experience for anyone. It not only develops you academically, it develops you as an individual. It’s essential to developing the communication skills that some careers need. Communication is a huge aspect of success.”

At the multi-campus St. Stephen Baptist Church based in Louisville, Ky.,  students graduating from high school and planning to start college the same year must be interviewed as part of an application process, said the program’s director, Rev. Pat Taylor.

Since the program’s inception in 2012, St. Stephen has awarded 73 students a total of $116,000, she said. The amount has ranged from $500 to $3,500.

Dr. Corey D. B. WalkerDr. Corey D. B. Walker

While some programs are selective, awarding money only to its top applicants, many churches try to provide some amount to every applicant.

Virginia Union University has teamed up with the Baptist General Convention of Virginia to encourage churches to sponsor students, said Dr. Corey D. B. Walker, vice president, dean and professor of religion and society at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology.

If a church provides a $3,000 scholarship to a student, the university will match it.

“This is so tremendous in terms of eliminating student debt and helping to create new mechanisms and means for student support,” said Walker, who noted that churches are diversifying their support for Black students and Black institutions by also hosting college fairs and sponsoring college bus tours.

“What we’re seeing is that students are having a hard time affording college,” said Walker, who hailed the partnership with the Baptist convention as a significant initiative. “We want students not to be able to just attend college, but also to complete college and receive their degrees.”

Technically, scholarships should be paid to the student’s college – or reported by the student if he or she receives it directly – so that financial aid advisers can adjust the student’s financial aid plan, said Jill Desjean, a policy analyst with the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Often, however, churches issue the payment to the student personally, sometimes out of ignorance and other times thinking the student and family can best determine how it should be used – or to prevent the school from cutting back on other aid the student will receive.

“Eligibility for financial aid is limited by the cost of attendance,” said Desjean. “Outside money, regardless of where it comes from, is considered ‘estimated financial aid’ and has to be factored into a student’s financial aid package.”

Such aid, Desjean said, can be applied to decrease a student’s loans or work-study employment, or to reduce scholarship aid a student is to receive from the institution, called “scholarship displacement.”

Rivers said that members of his congregation–many of whom were not able to earn a college degree–are committed to helping younger church-goers with their college education.

“I’m glad that the church has agreed and is willing and excited,” said Rivers, who had contemplated a career in the United States Air Force, until someone encouraged him to consider college. “I remember well how many people looked out for me, many who I didn’t know. We have to do that for others.”

Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson. LaMont Jones can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter @DrLaMontJones

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