Nine years ago, when Mabel Watson's daughter Kiya graduated from T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, she almost made it to college. To cover tuition and expenses, she got student loans, a Pell grant and "whatever we could find," her mother said.
In the end, it wasn't enough.
"There was $1,600 left that had to be paid," Watson said. "We couldn't have paid if it had been $100."
Kiya didn't go to college, but since then her mother has discovered an unusual source of money that was there all along. For the past 18 years, a nonprofit program called the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria has advised graduating seniors at T.C. Williams in seeking financial aid. It has also offered need- and merit-based "gap" scholarships to supplement other grants and loans.
When the fund began in 1986, it was one of a very few of its kind in the nation, but the idea has caught on. The National College Access Network, a nine-year-old umbrella organization for nonprofit programs that helps students get "last dollar" grants, now has 93 members, including three in the District, one in Maryland and seven in Virginia. Fairfax, Warren and Rappahannock counties are new members, and representatives from Fairfax and Rappahannock met recently with the director of Alexandria's program to learn how it works.
Even as high schools push to prepare a greater percentage of students for college, rising tuition and dwindling state and federal aid are combining to turn more students away, according to David Swedlow, director of research and technology for the college access network.
Over a 30-year career, a college degree makes about a $1 million difference in income, and it can make a similar impact on job satisfaction, according to Swedlow, who added that the number of careers open to those without a college degree is diminishing. "The same stigma that used to be associated with not having a high school diploma now applies to those who don't have a college degree," he said.
Last year, the Alexandria program awarded $360,612 in scholarships, the largest amount in its history. Many of the fund's donations come from Alexandria businesses and residents, in amounts as small as $5 and as large as $5,000. The grants, many named for their donors, are often renewable after the first year.
Most awards are modest, averaging $1,200. But for some students, they can make the difference between being able to go to college and not being able to go.
"We've had students every year who pack up their belongings and go to their dorm and find out that there are additional fees, and they have had to pack up and turn around and go home," said Susan Yowell, director of the fund. "It's heartbreaking for the family, especially when you look at some of these first-generation immigrants. Their hopes and dreams are hugely tied to this."
In most high schools, college counselors traditionally tend to tack advice about financial aid on to their other duties. Although Yowell is not employed by the school district, she acts as financial aid counselor for T.C. Williams, advising students on seeking out loans and grants and coordinating information workshops and community fundraising drives, including an annual gala and a telethon, scheduled this year for Oct. 24.
Yowell also educates parents, some of whom never went to college or are reluctant to disclose the financial information necessary to apply for aid. Now, with public two-year colleges averaging almost $2,000 a year and four-year colleges costing a lot more, the school has stepped up efforts to publicize the fund.
"George Mason University has gone up 60 percent in tuition over the past four years," Yowell said. "When you consider that George Mason has sort of been considered the affordable state four-year school that is closest to our students, we're pushing greatly to increase" awareness of the fund among students and prospective donors.
Yowell now talks to parents and students in elementary and middle schools. "We show them pictures of students from kindergarten to 12th grade with a mortarboard on their head," she said, "to help them adjust to the idea that this is in their future."
The increased publicity caught Watson's eye last year when her younger daughter, Misty, was a senior at T.C. Williams. "When Misty came along, I said, 'We have to do this the right way,' " she said.
Watson said the school was also more prepared than when Kiya graduated. "This time, they sent out fliers," she said. "It seems to me [that information] was put out way more." Misty received a $1,000 grant and recently enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University.
"They're there to help you slide right on in," her mother said of the fund.
In Fairfax, the idea came about somewhat organically: Tessie Wilson, a Fairfax County School Board member, had worked as accountant for the Alexandria fund and watched its progress.
"I kept thinking if Alexandria can make this scholarship fund work, and their population is so much smaller, so can Fairfax," Wilson said.
With a larger population, she said, the Fairfax program will focus more on directing students to outside aid rather than providing awards. The district has received a $5,000 start-up grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which hopes to fund several college access programs in the area. Fairfax also has applied for a larger grant to start programs in seven of its 24 high schools this year.
"People think of Fairfax County as not needing that kind of thing, but it's not true," Wilson said, adding that in the last five years the district has become more economically diverse.
Recently, Yowell received an e-mail from a past T.C. Williams award recipient. "He wrote, 'Mrs. Yowell, you probably don't remember me,' " she said, "but he's now teaching in Baltimore, and did I have any recommendations on how to start an access program? And I went, 'Wow!' We've come full circle with this concept of college access."
Another past recipient, Michael Diggins, said his $500 grant 15 years ago wasn't huge, but that wasn't the point. "It builds confidence, you know, especially for kids like me," he said. "My parents never finished high school, and they were kind of lost in the financial aid hoopla."
Diggins now teaches marketing at T.C. Williams and advises students who are applying for the fund. "Some say it's a drop in the bucket, but I just think the emotional boost it gives the student is very helpful," he said.
Last year, 221 students applied for money from the fund and 198 were recipients. Most scholarships were small, but in one unusual instance an anonymous donor gave the daughter of Salvadoran immigrants $27,000 for her first year at University of Maryland in College Park.
The endings aren't always so happy. Sometimes even the "last dollar" funds simply aren't enough, especially for foreign nationals who are sometimes charged out-of-state tuition at state schools. Last year, a Ghanaian student declined an acceptance from the University of Virginia -- his "dream school" -- for lack of funding and enrolled in Northern Virginia Community College.
Watson's older daughter, Kiya, now 26, has held an assortment of jobs. She would still like to attend college, and her mother still encourages her to try. But Watson has also learned the value of planning ahead. Her 11-year-old nephew, a student at George Washington Middle School, will graduate from T.C. Williams in six years, and she is already planning to steer him toward the fund.
"I'm going to be ready for him," she said. "All the ducks are going to be in a row."