Principal R. Nelson Snider understood the importance of higher education, but he also knew some of his South Side High School students couldn’t afford it. When a deserving student needed help to attend college, he sometimes lent them his own money. A well-respected administrator over a 40-year career that began in 1923, Snider eventually hit up well-heeled residents to contribute to a loan fund.
Each mention of the high school that bears his name is testament to his devotion to education, but a college loan program benefiting hundreds of northeast Indiana students is a little-known piece of Snider’s legacy. Those personal loans he made evolved into the Fort Wayne Education Fund and, in turn, the Questa Education Foundation. Today, the loans help northeast Indiana students attend college and graduate with less debt, while also offering an attractive incentive to remain in the region.
A 50-percent forgivable loan of up to $20,000 is available to Questa Scholars through the education fund. In addition, a partnership with nine area schools means the loans can be reduced by another quarter. Recent high school graduates are the primary beneficiaries, but a growing number of non-traditional students are tapping Questa funds to stay on track at Ivy Tech Community College and other schools.
From Snider’s example, a program has evolved to help area students attend college without incurring overwhelming debt. It has the added benefits of increasing the number of residents with two- or four-year degrees and keeping young residents in northeast Indiana – working and contributing to their communities.
‘A huge blessing’
Werner Wolff is a senior pursuing a bachelor’s degree in nursing at the University of Saint Francis, but that wasn’t his original college plan.
"I was accepted at Purdue for agricultural economics," said the 2011 Woodlan High School graduate, "I was all set to go, but something didn’t feel right about it."
Wolff said his father saw a notice about an upcoming nursing open house at Saint Francis and suggested he check it out. From that event, Wolff changed his academic plan and began looking for scholarship opportunities, including the Questa program. On track to graduate from an Allen County high school and attend an in-state university, he qualified.
"From the get-go, it was a huge blessing," he said of the loan program. "It’s absolutely a huge deal. They’ve made it as easy as possible for students. They just want to help you to graduate."
If Wolff continues to live in one of 11 northeast Indiana counties for five years after graduation, 75 percent of his $20,000 loan will be forgiven. Compare the $5,000 figure to the average $28,466 debt for 2013 graduates of Indiana’s four-year institutions to see just how attractive the program can be.
Wolff’s experience also highlights Questa’s goal to keep graduates in northeast Indiana. He’s been employed at Parkview Health System for most of his college career, with plans to continue working in the area and studying to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner.
A broader scope
Marc Levy, a former United Way executive who returned to Fort Wayne in 2012 to become executive director of Questa, has worked to expand both the scope of the program and awareness of it. Questa’s custom programs now serve students who don’t fit the traditional high school-to-college mold. Older students returning to Ivy Tech Community College Northeast and to other programs need the assistance to stay on track.
"In talking with our partner (colleges), there are some students who start and don’t need our money, but they are finding they get to their junior year and the scholarships are falling off and the money they’ve earned in part-time jobs isn’t meeting their needs – so they’ve got a gap," Levy said. "That gap could be where they’ve got to leave school to work full time. Our goal is to say, ‘No, we would like you to complete your degree.’ "
Levy is working with college officials like Ivy Tech’s Chris Cathcart, vice chancellor for student affairs, and Oliver Barie, executive director of resource development, to identify those students who need just enough to finish. It required some study to adjust guidelines so the loan money would have the greatest effect.
"When we started, it was kind of a shot in the dark because we weren’t sure who was going to take advantage of this ‘gap funding’," Cathcart said. "It’s additional funds students need for support while they are in school. Typically, as a community college student, our students can cover their tuition through the funds they would get from (federal financial aid), but there are some who are returning to increase skills or looking for a new vocation."
It’s those students who might suddenly face a financial emergency – a family illness, unexpected car repair bill or loss of a part-time job – and consider dropping out.
"We are a school of non-traditional students," Barie said. "These are parents; these are full-time jobholders; and money is not easy to come by. But they want to better themselves. They want to get a two-year degree or finish a two-year degree. So this program works right in our wheelhouse for the type of student we have at Ivy Tech Northeast."
Cathcart said faculty members are taking advantage of the program to help deserving students.
"We’ve already heard stories of, ‘If I can just help this one student out and get them through to finish,’ " he said.
Sixteen Ivy Tech students are currently tapping Questa funds. Eight are on track to graduate in May. Their loan balances range from $2,500 to $7,400. As with the traditional Questa Scholars, a portion will be forgiven if the students meet the education foundation’s guidelines – 50 percent by Questa and 25 percent by Ivy Tech.
"That’s the linchpin of the program," Cathcart said. "The students complete their degree and go to work in northeast Indiana."
If reduced college borrowing benefits students, retention of those students represents the value for investing in the Questa effort. With Levy’s effective sales pitch across the region, business owners, economic groups and even individuals are seeing the benefits of supporting the loan program.
Fort Wayne City Councilman John Crawford is one. He has supported the program since 2010, donating his entire $22,279 annual council salary to the Questa fund. City Council as a whole joined in, voting to dedicate $800,000 from proceeds of the City Light and Power lease’s Legacy Fund. The investment represents a true legacy in that it will benefit Fort Wayne students for years to come.
Questa is a key to the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership’s "Big Goal" – the initiative to increase the number of residents with a degree or certification from the current 37 percent to 60 percent by 2025. Economic development officials in DeKalb, Steuben, Kosciusko and Whitley counties are joining the effort, using Questa’s framework to offer opportunities for students in those counties.
Levy continues to work on building the program, emphasizing the idea of "paying forward."
"It’s an opportunity to invest in people, helping them get an education but also to help retain them in the region," he said. "It’s really about understanding that education is a gateway to a better life. People need to know that communities that have an educated workforce are going to thrive."
It’s a concept R. Nelson Snider supported by example more than a half-century ago, with a legacy still paying dividends.
Karen Francisco is editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette.