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Osher Scholars Get Much-Needed Assist From Community College Scholarship Program

Since beginning her studies at Pasadena City College in southern California in 2006, each term has been a financial challenge for Nelli Pogosyan, and this semester is no exception. But now, thousands like Pogosyan catch a small break thanks to a statewide endowment specifically supporting community college-goers.

Known as Osher Scholars, the neediest students at the 112 community colleges in the nation’s most populous state are receiving scholarships worth up to $1,000 for textbooks, lab fees and other instructional supplies. Pogosyan used part of her $375 award for software required for a computer technology course.

Osher Scholars are selected by each institution from among low- and fixed-income students who already receive tuition waivers based on their financial aid applications.

“The Osher money helped me keep up with classwork rather than fall behind,” says Pogosyan, a single mother who works part-time and whose son is in college, too. “I couldn’t find used books at the store so I bought them new rather than struggle to buy used ones online and wait for the mail.” 

Her scholarship springs from the $67.7 million California Community Colleges Scholarship Endowment created in part from a $25 million lead gift in 2008 by the Bernard Osher Foundation. Since then, the Foundation for California Community Colleges has led and completed a three-year fundraising campaign that ended last June, netting the remaining endowment monies. Specifically, for every $2 raised by a two-year college in the state, the Osher Foundation matched it with an additional $1 gift.

Kerry Wood, vice president of resource development and communications for the Foundation for California Community Colleges, notes that benefactor Bernard Osher could have easily made his one-time gift of $25 million and moved on.

“Instead, he challenged the community colleges to raise additional funds for which he would match by 50 percent,” Wood says. “This act alone served as an intended message to other (donors) to consider the community colleges as a viable and worthwhile beneficiary of their funds.”

California boasts the country’s largest system of community colleges; nationally, one of every four Americans enrolled in such institutions are in that state. Minorities comprise 60 percent of the California system’s 2.7 million students. Regardless of race, these full-time students statewide have an average median income of only $16,200 annually.

Pogosyan, who is striving for an associate’s degree in accounting and another in business, works about 20 hours a week at a campus computer lab. There, she tutors students and staff in applications such as Excel and PowerPoint and helps students register for classes each term. At home, she keeps tabs on her 18-year-old son, a college freshman whom she still helps by paying for an occasional tank of gas or a round of groceries with whatever meager cash she scrapes up.

The initial $25 million Osher Foundation gift, described as one of the largest to any community college nationally, began yielding scholarships to needy students beginning in the 2009 fall semester during the depths of the recession.

Now at its full capacity this school year, the statewide endowment is supporting at least 3,300 scholarships annually. However, that figure could rise dramatically any given year due to individual colleges retaining the discretion to make awards of less than $1,000 each for part-time students such as Pogosyan, who hopes to eventually transfer to a four-year college and study hospitality management.

Individual schools such as Pasadena City College raised funds toward the endowment through corporate and individual donations, alumni giving and other means. The Pasadena campus raised more than $1.7 million in the three-year effort.

“Beyond providing scholarships, there’s an increased awareness and engagement of philanthropists across the state and beyond to support community colleges,” Wood says. “In this era of limited state funding to meet the high demand for a community college education, the message is more important than ever.”

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