Small Town, Big Scholarships

As Pennsylvania burg seeks to reinvent itself, philanthropists extend college scholarships to keep students close to home and train workers for local jobs.
May 14, 2009

An abandoned firehouse-turned-community college student center dedicated in Tamaqua, Pa., last month stands as an apt metaphor for the efforts civic leaders have made to use education to turn this coal mining town around.

The town's story is a familiar one in many parts of the Northeast and Midwest, where cities and towns that once thrived on manufacturing now struggle to keep their young people and remake their economies. A flourishing coal mining hub at the turn of the 20th century, Tamaqua saw a steady decline in commerce when coal production tapered off in the 1950s. Community leaders and local businessmen, though, have sought to re-brand the area as a place for young people to find opportunity and for businesses to find educated workers.

In 2002, a foundation started by John E. Morgan, whose knitwear manufacturing company was one of the few large businesses to spring up out of Tamaqua since the decline of coal production there, agreed to cover two years of tuition at Lehigh Carbon Community College for graduates of Tamaqua Senior High School.The stipulations are few: eligible candidates must have attended the high school for two consecutive years before graduation, file a federal student aid application, and enroll in at least nine college credit hours per semester.

Like many similar scholarships that seek to tap into the combination of challenge and opportunity that Eugene M. Lang inspired with his "I Have a Dream" scholarship for a New York City elementary school nearly 30 years ago, Morgan's goal was to inspire local students both to go on to college and to stay close to home. The early results are good: More than half of the graduates marching across the stage at Tamaqua High’s commencement in a few weeks will take advantage of the Morgan scholarship. Prior to 2002, significantly fewer Tamaqua High grads -- about 20 percent as opposed to 50 percent now -- went on to community college, almost always choosing Lehigh Carbon because of its close proximity. According to Frank Dickman, a Tamaqua High guidance counselor, the Morgan scholarship is the reason behind the "huge shift" in the number of students choosing community college over other options.

Morgan's gift has now inspired a copycat, to the benefit of Tamaqua's students. The Scheller family, which has an aluminum coatings manufacturing company and donates generously in the region, this April announced its own $1.5 million endowed scholarship program that aims to pay for Lehigh Carbon Community College students’ next two years of schooling at certain four-year institutions in the state. Roberta and Ernest Scheller announced the endowment and dedicated the half-million dollar firehouse-turned-student center on the same day, in honor of their daughter, Lisa Jane, an alumna of LCCC and now the CEO of the family's company.

While the Scheller scholarship is not limited to Tamaqua High grads -- all students from the Tamaqua branch of Lehigh Carbon who are residents of the county can qualify, so long as they maintain a 3.0 GPA and complete their degrees in four semesters -- the new fund ensures Tamaqua students can attain not just a two-year degree, but now a four-year degree at no cost. Scholarship recipients mostly head to Bloomsburg University or Kutztown University, but other Pennsylvania colleges including DeSales University, Muhlenberg College and Cedar Crest College have also taken on LCCC students.

These scholarship programs, says Tim Herrlinger, executive director of the Lehigh Carbon Community College Foundation, not only provide opportunities in postsecondary education for students who might not otherwise attend, but also draw the attention of businesses and employers who might have overlooked the area. And for the small town of Tamaqua, that attention could turn into desirable economic growth.

“More so now than before, people want to stay,” said Herrlinger. “When you’re in an area where economics are challenging, people tend to look away. But they’re not looking away as much. The truth is, there’s a lot of hope that comes from an opportunity like this.”

Donald Snyder, Lehigh Carbon's president, says that while it may be too early to see substantial growth in business caused by the scholarship funds, growth in the residential sector is evident. Several families, he said, have moved to the area to take advantage of the scholarship opportunities.

Further proof of the scholarships’ magnetic draw is Laura Peters, a graduating senior at Tamaqua High who committed to Lehigh Carbon after having considered an out-of-town option for college. Seeing her older sister happily pursuing a degree in elementary education at LCCC free of charge, Peters found a program that interested her at the local two-year college and now plans to begin her postsecondary education close to home.

According to her guidance counselor, Frank Dickman, Peters is one of roughly 80 students who will attend Lehigh Carbon in the fall. Tamaqua High sends over 90 percent of its students straight to college, trade school or the military, Dickman said, and the new scholarship program has shaken up the percentages of kids choosing options away from Tamaqua.

“Everybody expected [the scholarship program] to grab kids that didn’t have plans,” he said. “But really it pulled more kids from the four-year institutions, and some kids going right into the military. The number of kids going to the military was down to zero in the first couple years [after the program started].”

Snyder adds: “We've removed the financial barriers for the students. All that is required is the desire and the willingness to succeed. It is a great vision for this community to have access to education that is affordable and convenient.”


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