Coming into her senior year, Alisha McClung learned that her lender, College Loan Corp., had gotten out of the federal student loan business . Unable to register for classes because she couldn’t pay half the semester's fees, as required, she called Spelman College to confirm just how much cash she needed to come up with. “They told me my balance was a zero balance. I thought it was a mistake.”
No mistake: McClung was the beneficiary of an anonymous donor's generosity and, more specifically, Spelman’s new Starfish Initiative, which matches donors with students, primarily seniors, at risk of not graduating for financial reasons. Unlike the “Last Mile” scholarships that Spelman has given in the past, which typically are worth relatively small sums -- $1,000 to $1,500 for the student who made less than expected in a summer job, or who’s whacked with a particularly high textbook bill -- Spelman’s looking to donors to fill much bigger gaps, averaging $10,000 per student who’s short.
“These are students that really cannot get the bulk of their funding together,” said Kassandra Jolley, vice president for development at Spelman, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta. “The worst thing from our perspective would be to have a student who’s a senior, who may have upwards of $60,000 in loans, not be able to graduate.”
Starfish is not geared toward the small-time, $50 alumni donors: Jolley said Spelman officials generally encourage donations for the initiative to be $10,000 or above (a one donor, one student model). The program is named for the well-known allegory about a little girl who’s overwhelmed by the number of dying starfish strewn by a storm onto the beach. The girl starts throwing starfish back into the ocean, one at a time. Told by a passerby that she couldn’t possibly help them all, the girl throws another back and says, “I helped that one.”
“We really see our students as the starfish…. That’s literally what we are doing. We are helping them one by one,” said Jolley. She said that 29 Spelman students have been assisted by Starfish so far, with 45 more seniors identified as needing "significant tuition assistance" to graduate. "They will likely need to leave campus in October if they are not able to secure additional funds."
At Spelman, where about 40 percent of students are Pell Grant-eligible, the Starfish Initiative had its origins in concerns  about the tightening credit market and its effect on students' access to college loans. Lenora Jackson, the director of student financial services, estimates that, given prevailing economic conditions, Spelman will receive $2 million less through private loan funding this year than last, and another $1 million less through parent loans. Families, she said, are having to find other ways to pay for college.
As for federally subsidized loans, with companies backing out of the market, some students had to be switched from one lender to another, Jackson said.
That’s what happened to McClung, the Spelman senior who said that she did secure a new federal loan through a different bank earlier this month, albeit after the registration deadline. A child development major with plans to student teach this spring, she said the Starfish funding will allow her to cut her working hours to 15 hours per week this semester, rather than the 35-hour work weeks she’s kept up in semesters past.
“I’m taking 22 [credit] hours this semester, so me trying to work before like in previous years … wouldn’t have worked this year at all,” McClung said.
“Honestly, if I didn’t get this scholarship, I don’t know how the money would have been paid.”