Union College raises $20M in less than a year to help low-income students

The Nott Memorial is seen in the distance on the campus of Union College in Schenectady on Monday, March 30, 2020. 

The Nott Memorial is seen in the distance on the campus of Union College in Schenectady on Monday, March 30, 2020. 

SCHENECTADY – A fundraiser to make Union College affordable for 10 additional low-income students in perpetuity sprinted toward its finish, an effort that took just months instead of the five years the schools’ leadership had originally contemplated.

The liberal arts college of more than 2,000 full-time undergraduates from 40 states in downtown Schenectady had announced in September that it wanted to raise $20 million during a span of five years to boost its ability to enroll low-income students through Pell Grants.

But on Friday, Union College officials said nearly 200 donors had already brought the college to its goal.

Union College currently supports about 75 students a year who received federal need-based Pell Grants that are awarded to low-income undergraduate students. Most Pell Grants are awarded to students with a total family annual income below $20,000.

Now its number of Pell Grant students increases to 85.

“Think of all the lives that can change – people who only lack financial resources, who are otherwise ready to thrive in whatever path they choose,” College President David Harris said in an interview. “That’s tremendously exciting to me. We’re making a real difference in people’s lives.”

Union teamed with the Schuler Education Foundation to invest up to $42 million to enroll more low-income students, and the college is among the first five schools selected to participate in the Schuler Access Initiative, which aims to enroll more underserved students at the nation’s top liberal arts colleges.

Bates College in Maine, Carleton College in Minnesota, Kenyon College in Ohio and Tufts University in Massachusetts are the other participating schools.

Dr. Estelle Cooke-Sampson, who graduated from Union College in 1974, was highlighted as one of the donors.

“It behooves us to have a social conscience about how we use the financial resources we have at hand,”  Cooke-Sampson, who retired last year as director of the Women’s Imaging Center at Howard University Hospital, said in a statement through the college.

Harris said he was heartened by the extent of the giving, “especially at a time of such darkness,” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The donor who gave us $300,000, who had never made a gift to Union College in 30-plus years,” Harris said. “The donor who gave us $70,000 in 35 years, who stepped up with $1 million.”

In all, the school received seven pledges of $1 million or more. The largest gift was $3 million.

Harris said the giving reflected “a community that’s passionate about trying to help people and create opportunities – and that’s inspiring to me, and that gives me energy.”

Union College said its Pell students are typically among the highest achievers in the classroom, and leaders across campus.

Harris said the partnership with Schuler underscores how families should put less focus on Union College’s $76,000 a year cost to attend. The average need-based scholarship at Union is $40,300.

Harris said he hopes the initiative makes clear that prospective students should look at how much they’re likely to pay, rather than the school’s sticker price.

“We’ve made it possible for 10 more people a year who might otherwise have thought there’s no way I can afford this, to come here to grow and thrive,” Harris said.

Contact reporter Brian Lee at [email protected] or 518-419-9766.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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