Strategic scholarship investment keeps MATC students on path to graduation

Aaron was working as a CNC operator after serving in the military, but a desire for a new career in supply chain management led him to enroll at Milwaukee Area Technical College in January 2017. That same year, his wife required treatment for cancer. Because he qualified for a unique scholarship program funded by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, he was able to get support during a difficult time.

“The grant I received was able to help pay for books I needed for class as well as allow me to purchase a six-month rental of Minitab that I needed for Six Sigma classes,” he said. “The grant was an unexpected relief to us.”

By the spring of 2018, Aaron had earned technical diplomas in supply management and transportation – logistics. He received his associate degree in supply chain management that winter, followed by Six Sigma Green Belt certification this spring. Now a production planner at Athea Laboratories in Milwaukee, Aaron is finally in the career he sought from the start.

“I could not be happier with where I am right now,” he said. “I am doing a job I love, with people I enjoy being around, and they all seem to appreciate the work I am doing.”

Aaron was one of 343 MATC students who received a GMF scholarship through the MATC Foundation between January 2015 and December 2018. The aid resulted from a $500,000 investment GMF made to reduce the financial barriers to academic success for students enrolled in a Career Pathways program at MATC who also needed to complete basic skills coursework. 

Not only was the grant successful in improving retention rates for this population of students, MATC officials said this program, along with national best practices, helped inform the launch of the MATC Promise – an initiative that provides free tuition to both eligible, low-income high school graduates and returning adults who started but never completed a degree.

An education equity strategy

Recognizing that inadequate access to financial resources severely affects students’ ability to enter and complete collegiate programs, the Foundation and MATC in 2014 began exploring how to improve outcomes together. They determined a needs-based scholarship for items such as tuition and books would effectively increase the likelihood that students would complete their education and enter professions with family-sustaining wages. Given that 58% of MATC students identify themselves as a member of a racial/ethnic minority group, the effort also was well-positioned to advance racial equity, a core value of the Foundation.

“We saw strong alignment between the Foundation’s commitment to racial equity and inclusion and the access to opportunity that reducing the cost burden for MATC students would provide,” said Janel Hines, the Foundation’s senior director of grant programs and strategic initiatives.

In the GMF scholarship program, 76% of recipients were students of color.

Avenues to student success

Although they were still phasing in as the scholarship program began, all of MATC’s programs are now linked to a Career Pathway, an education model that offers students direct job preparation and a path to the next higher academic program by sequencing related programs. MATC has nearly 100 Career Pathways in programs as diverse as animation, radiography and real estate. Some students enter their pathways also needing supplementary basic skills education. These are the students the scholarships intended to support.

“The Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s generous gift directly impacted hundreds of MATC students, breaking down barriers standing between them and a family-sustaining career,” MATC President Dr. Vicki J. Martin said. “Students who received the scholarships were more likely to stay in college and to graduate.”   

Student retention – whether a student persisted in their education – is an important measure of the scholarship’s effectiveness and indicator of future student success. Among GMF scholarship recipients, the retention rate from the fall semester to the spring semester was 88 percent, compared to MATC’s overall average of 74 percent. This increase is significant because completing at least two semesters of courses greatly increases the chances a student will receive a credential in their field of study.

Further exceeding the norms, 74 percent of scholarship students enrolled in the fall continued their education at least through the next fall semester. By comparison, MATC’s average fall-to-fall retention rate is 56 percent.

The long-term impact of the scholarship program, in some ways, is still unfolding. So far, 27 percent of the scholarship recipients have earned at least one credential, and some are seeking additional education. MATC officials anticipate the completion rate will continue to rise because many of their students are part time and may need up to six years to finish a credential. In addition, nearly two-thirds of recipients first received their scholarships just within the past two years, suggesting an expected increased impact on graduation over the next few semesters. 

An unexpected benefit

The Foundation’s scholarship preceded and helped shape components of the MATC Promise, which was the first program of its kind in the state. Like the Career Pathways scholarship, the MATC Promise helps remove financial barriers to education that is required to secure family-sustaining employment. Established in 2015 and made possible through philanthropic support, the MATC Promise for New High School Graduates provides free tuition (after federal and state financial grant aid has been applied) for area high school graduates who meet program eligibility requirements.

The ripple effect continued. In May 2018, the MATC Promise for Adults was launched, providing free tuition to complete an in-demand associate degree for eligible students 24 years old and above who started college but did not finish. To date, 119 Promise students have earned a credential and/or degree.

The realization of these programs may be the greatest legacy of the Foundation’s scholarship investment, as MATC seeks to endow the Promise for the generations of students who follow.

“Making higher education more accessible is a strong passion for many donors of the Foundation, and our support of MATC honors that priority,” said Ellen Gilligan, Foundation president and CEO. “During the last decade, over 100 different funds at the Foundation provided higher education scholarships for students through more than 68 high schools and colleges. In each case, those scholarships were possible because of a donor’s generous decision to positively impact the lives of students in our community."

What other Greater Milwaukee Foundation scholarship recipients are saying

“I have been blessed with the opportunity to receive my diploma, which would not have been possible without the scholarship award.”

MATC graduate, graphic design

“I loved MATC and graduated from the accounting program. I am now full time at UW-Parkside to get my bachelor’s degree.  I want to sit for the CPA license and pursue working in identifying fraud when I am an accountant.”

MATC graduate, accounting 

“I’d like to thank the (Foundation) for not only helping me, but other students as well, in a situation where things were difficult, especially for me because I was still new to this country. Since I came from Colombia, I wasn’t in a position where I could be flexible with money, so the scholarship really helped me get some of the things I needed, and it was a great help for me to be where I am right now.”

MATC graduate, audio production; MATC student, music occupations