Grand Valley Pledge will help first-generation students pay for college in Calhoun County and beyond

First-generation college students in Calhoun County have an advocate they have likely never heard of.

Less than one year into his job as Vice President for Enrollment at Grand Valley State University, B. Donta Truss developed a plan that will give students in Calhoun County and five other counties where GVSU has a physical presence, a tuition-free opportunity to attend the university. Known as the Grand Valley Pledge, low-income students who qualify will have access to free full undergraduate tuition, renewable for four years.

For Truss, the initiative is borne out of his own experience as a first-generation college student whose family didn’t have the financial means to send him to school.

“Coming from a first-generation background and understanding the trials and tribulations of navigating a college experience, it’s very important to me that students are able to have this experience regardless of their socio-economic status,” Truss says.

He wishes a program like the Grand Valley Pledge had been available to him. At a time when he should have been able to focus solely on his course of study, his attention was frequently diverted to concerns about how he was going to cover the next semester’s tuition.

“I gained from those experiences and it gave me the drive to make it better for the person behind me,” Truss says. “I would suggest that many low-income students are first-generation and as a former first-generation student myself, I can understand how barriers can stop them.”

This drive and commitment are shared by GVSU President Philomena V. Mantella. She says this program demonstrates the university's commitment to its communities. In addition to Calhoun County, the Grand Valley Pledge is being offered in Grand Traverse, Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon, and Wayne counties.

"It is another way of assuring that we create opportunity and advance equity in the communities in which we live and teach, as well as inspire a broader movement of making higher education accessible to all,” says Mantella in a press release.

There is no cap on the number of students who will receive tuition assistance. Truss says students who qualify from each of the six counties will receive funding. Among those qualifiers: Students must be admitted to Grand Valley, beginning in the fall 2021 semester, and have a family income of less than $50,000.

“This is what we call last grant dollars,” he says. “Students who receive a Pell Grant or merit scholarship will have their remaining balance picked up by GVSU. We have instructional financial aid to cover those gaps.”

Michelle Rhodes, GVSU’s Associate Vice President for Financial Aid, says the Grand Valley Pledge is a “wonderful opportunity for qualified students to invest in their futures.” She says the program alleviates the complexities of filling out multiple financial aid forms.
"We wanted to make it as simple as possible," Rhodes says in a press release. "Students who meet the financial criteria according to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will have their tuition covered for the four years they are at Grand Valley."

Strengthening an Existing Partnership

GVSU is no stranger to Battle Creek and surrounding communities in Calhoun County and the region.

In May 2019, a partnership between GVSU and Battle Creek Public Schools was announced. Funding for the collaboration came through a $15.5 million, five-year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

GVSU established a physical presence in downtown Battle Creek with the opening in November 2019 of its Battle Creek Regional Outreach Center at 8 West Michigan Avenue. The overall focus of the Outreach Center is on preparing BCPS students for careers in science, technology, health care, and education, while also offering teachers additional support and career pathways. GVSU designed a series of programs aimed at widening the region's access to education.

When COVID-19 forced the temporary shutdown of in-person interactions at the Outreach Center, the staff pivoted to offer virtual opportunities to receive assistance, something that has continued throughout the pandemic, says Al Shifflet, III, Director of Community Engagement for the center.

This assistance included securing full-ride scholarships for six first-generation students, all graduating seniors from Battle Creek Central High School. They were the first recipients of the scholarship program which was announced in February 2020. Funding for the Battle Creek Public School Health and Teacher Education Pipeline Scholarship comes through the $15.5 million grant from the WKKF.

Each of those selected were graduating seniors from Battle Creek Central High School who had expressed an interest in pursuing education, nursing, or health professions as they are now doing as students at GVSU.

Matthew Bozzo, a Career Navigator with the Outreach Center, says he is currently in the recruitment phase and applications are now being accepted as part of the selection process to identify this year’s group of six recipients.

While this scholarship pays the cost of everything – tuition, books, housing, and food – for a specific number of students, the Grand Valley Pledge covers the cost of tuition and books for an unspecified number of students.

Truss says for some students this will free up funds to cover the cost of necessities like food and housing.

“Think about how much of a burden we removed to those gaps,” he says. “We have a financial aid office and they will work with these students to see what’s available in terms of what community scholarships and funds to apply for and to be on the lookout for. The Federal TRIO program can assist them with identifying what other gaps they may have.”

TRIO focuses on low-income, first-generation students.

GVSU has a number of programs available for first-generation students, many of them specific to a particular race or ethnicity, including Black Excellence 365 and Laker Familia.

“We’ll work with them to assist them as much as we can to ensure a smooth transition,” Truss says.

Taking what he learned elsewhere

Truss had familiarity with a program similar to the Grand Valley Pledge during his tenure at Shippensburg University located in Shippensburg, PA., where he served as Senior Vice President of Enrollment Management, Student Affairs, prior to joining GVSU in April 2020.

That program, known as Students First, was unveiled in January 2019.

While there is no universal definition for first-generation, SU leadership says a first-generation student is someone “whose parents or legal guardian(s) do not have a four-year college degree. There are also two qualifying subcategories for students who may have special circumstances: an individual who, prior to the age of 18, regularly resided with and received support from only one parent and whose supporting parent did not complete a baccalaureate degree or an individual who, prior to the age of 18, did not regularly reside with or receive support from a natural or adoptive parent.”

Since first-generation students who graduate from college are significantly more prepared for life’s challenges, Truss says it makes perfect sense to build a solid foundation around them; this structuring of support has been an intentional effort.

“Knowing college graduates, in general, are more likely to be employed is something to get excited about. In fact, communities where unemployment is low, prosper the most from college graduates because the members of the community contribute to the area in multiple ways,” Truss wrote in an article for Public Opinion Online

“Financially, individuals who have earned a bachelor’s degree will, on average, make approximately $1 million more during their lifetime than those without a college education,” he says in a reference to data in the Fact Sheet. “Yet many people still question whether or not college is necessary. Thus, the question should not be the necessity of a college education, but rather how does one gain the most value from it.”

Understandably, when first-generation students begin college, they may not have all the answers or even be keenly aware of every opportunity that is available, Truss says.

“Further, receiving support from family members may not be an option, causing their desire and ability to graduate to sometimes fizzle out, and they stop out or drop out of school. Even before the first semester commences, conversations with high school counselors, college applications, entrance essays, SATs/ACTs, and financial aid packages must be completed,” he says.

“Though this process can be daunting for any wanna-be college grad, first-generation students typically struggle more with these tasks than their second- and third-generation peers. Since research confirms students whose parents have not attended college often face significant challenges in accessing postsecondary education, succeeding academically once they enroll, and completing a degree, it becomes everyone’s responsibility to ensure our students are appropriately equipped.”

The Grand Valley Pledge complemented by the wide array of resources available to these students highlights GVSU’s commitment to that responsibility, Truss says.

"GVSU educates learners to shape their lives and the Grand Valley Pledge ensures that many of these learners will not be left out,” he says. "This is a great start to eliminating equity gaps at GVSU. By removing financial barriers to college, deserving students can enroll and be ready to start their path to a degree."
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