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Challenge Scholars program to phase out with Class of 2028

Community Foundation cites changed opportunities for graduates

Grand Rapids — A program offering full-tuition college scholarships for students on the West Side of Grand Rapids will be phased out over the next decade, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation announced today, May 21.

The Union High School class of 2028 will be the final cohort of students enrolled in the Community Foundation’s Challenge Scholars program. The foundation introduced the program in 2012 to provide scholarships and what it calls “an ecosystem of support for students on Grand Rapids’ west side.”

The first class of Challenge Scholars enrolled in the program in 2013 and graduated from Union High School in 2020. The program has restrictions based on family income and strict criteria around grades, attendance and behavior. In return those who take advantage of the program can attend college or technical training tuition-free.

The Community Foundation estimates that approximately 130 graduates have qualified for the four-year scholarship, with about $175,000 awarded to the Class of 2020. Another estimated 870 students are currently in the pipeline for scholarships. Those students all will have a chance to earn the award if they continue to meet eligibility criteria, with four-year awards available to students who started at Harrison Park or Westwood middle schools. Other Union grads may qualify for two-year scholarships at Grand Rapids Community College. 

Foundation officials said that since the program began, there have been changes to the ways in which Grand Rapids students, including those at Union, gain access to college. 

One significant difference is the presence of the Grand Rapids Promise Zone Scholarship. Implemented last year, the program gives free access to GRCC’s associate degree and job training and certification programs for eligible students who live within the city of Grand Rapids and who graduate from one of the 24 public, public charter, or private high schools located inside city limits. That program, which just saw its first GRCC graduate, has mostly replaced the Challenge Scholars two-year GRCC scholarship.

A Changing Landscape

Given those changes, leaders said the Community Foundation needed to make its own changes in response.

“As we work to increase opportunities for all students, it was imperative for us to recognize the ways the landscape has changed,” foundation President Diana Sieger said in a statement. “As a community foundation, it is our responsibility to adapt and respond, so we can meet the most pressing community needs.”

She added: “We will continue to work together to support our current Challenge Scholars as we look to the future and create more equitable opportunities.”

A Challenge Scholars Advisory Committee worked with Community Foundation staff on the recommended changes, which were approved by the foundation’s Board of Trustees earlier this year.

‘As we work to increase opportunities for all students, it was imperative for us to recognize the ways the landscape has changed.’

— Diana Sieger, president, Grand Rapids Community Foundation

Cris Kutzli, Challenge Scholars director at the foundation, told SNN that the approach going forward will be to contribute to a more equitable educational system. 

“Our commitment to the current (Challenge) Scholars isn’t going away,” she said. “But this is an opportunity for us to step back and say ‘What’s our role and how can we use our limited resources?’”

Needs Beyond Tuition and Books

Kutzli added the changes since the program was designed a decade ago led the Community Foundation to want to be less rigid as it looks ahead to the next decade or more and the foundation’s contributions to college affordability.

For example, she said, students who benefit from the Promise Zone scholarships still have needs beyond tuition and books, including essentials like housing and food.

“We want to be really intentional about looking for where the disparities are still showing up,” she said. 

In 2020, the Community Foundation gave more than $1.1 million in scholarships to Kent County students, in addition to scholarships for students in the Challenge Scholars program. 

Kutzli said the foundation is committed to all the current Challenge Scholars through 2032, covering up to four years of college for the Class of 2028. She and her team also will be looking to implement some of the foundation’s new approaches to equity and disparity immediately, she said using some of their unrestricted funds to test the waters in the coming years with new approaches.

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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers East Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and is the lead reporter for Grand Rapids. He hails from Exeter, Ontario (but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985) and is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop. Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both journalism and public relations, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level for almost a decade. In the summer of 2019, he began his own writing and communications business, de Haan Communications. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio


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