Support for Students: Scholarships and much more

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As a community foundation, we strive for a vibrant community where all people can apply their talents and creativity to fuel our future. We believe education is a key that unlocks these possibilities.

In recent decades, the gap in wealth between those who have a qualification like a degree or professional credential and those who do not has gotten wider. This gap means people who have degrees tend to earn more money over their lifetime. It also affects homeownership, health outcomes, employment opportunities and overall wellbeing. Supporting students as they work to complete degree and credential programs is critical to achieving the vision we all share for our community.

Our Commitment to Education

In 2021, Grand Rapids Community Foundation reaffirmed its commitment to bring greater equity to our work. We aligned on a strategy challenging us to create conditions where a student’s race, ethnicity, income or first-generation status does not determine their ability to succeed.

Supporting students has underscored the work of the Community Foundation since the 1940s. In those early decades we awarded our first scholarships. Our commitment to students deepened through Challenge Scholars, a program benefiting students on Grand Rapids’ west side graduating from Union High School from 2020 to 2028. Through Challenge Scholars, the Community Foundation uses grants and scholarships to support students going to college or career training. We welcomed our first class into Challenge Scholars 10 years ago. This spring we celebrate many of those students receiving their bachelor’s degree.

Education Landscape Changes and Challenges

Over the past decade the Community Foundation has learned a lot. And much has changed in the education landscape in our community and nation. In some ways, college and career training has become more financially accessible through city and state scholarship support. Nearly all Challenge Scholars students are eligible for the Grand Rapids Promise and the Michigan Achievement Scholarship. However, to complete a degree or credential, tuition support alone is not enough.

Students explain there are other factors preventing them from being able to finish a degree or credential program. Non-tuition costs like housing, food and transportation have increased along with inflation. Many students have home and family responsibilities requiring their attention. Others are discouraged as they navigate a complex education system. Some find they do not have any academic support as they learn content they were not exposed to in high school. Students may experience imposter syndrome and feelings of not fitting in. We know a variety of challenges exist. The Community Foundation is exploring our role in supporting students and eliminating barriers.

Focus on Attainment

The Community Foundation’s focus on students includes creating clearer pathways to access educational opportunities and supporting students’ needs to finish strong. And in doing so it challenges the Community Foundation to dig deeper and engage in new, collaborative ways.

Drawing from what we are learning from our Challenge Scholars students, the Community Foundation is working closely with higher education partners to remove systemic barriers to success. Grand Rapids Community College and Grand Valley State University, for example, are offering more wrap-around services for students to ensure they can cross the finish line.

The Community Foundation is also collaborating with partners to reimagine our scholarship application, scoring, selection and awarding process. An updated process will reinforce our commitment to equitable educational access and attainment. It will also remain responsive to student needs and ensure our operations are sustainable.

We know we have a role to play in the broader education ecosystem, as well. We are supporting local and state efforts to elevate the voices of students and caregivers when policy and budget decisions are made. And we are partnering with the Emergence Collective, (a consultancy that works alongside organizations seeking to be more effective and reflective using more inclusive and participatory approaches) to better understand the roles we can play in advancing education equity.

How You Can Support Students

Supporting students is central to who we are as a Community Foundation. We are continuing to adapt and respond to students’ needs to serve them better. That work would not be possible without the generous support of students, community members, partner organizations and donor partners. To start a conversation about how you can support students, contact our team.


Cris Kutzli is program director at Grand Rapids Community Foundation, where she leads the organization’s education strategy. She partners internally and externally to advance grantmaking and advocacy work that benefit students and directs the Challenge Scholars program. Cris enjoys checking out local restaurants and breweries, being outdoors and spending time with family.