Los Rios Community College District gets biggest-ever gift to help low-income students

Los Rios Community College District received its largest-ever gift — $752,500 — to help make college more affordable for low-income students at its four colleges, and more than two-thirds of that donation came from Sacramento-based Sutter Health.

Los Rios’ Paula Allison heads the team that worked to raise the funds. She said the money is going toward instituting $500 Promise Scholarships to help full-time, low-income students buy books and other supplies. The one-time awards are meant to complement the California Promise grants that pay tuition for full-time students who meet the financial need criteria.

“While that is wonderful and tuition is certainly a barrier for our students, it is by no means the only barrier, said Allison, the associate vice chancellor for resource development at Los Rios Colleges Foundation. “Community college students in California receive the least amount of financial aid, so essentially the net cost to go to one of our colleges is higher for a low-income independent student than for a student who’s going to UC or CSU.”

Sheku Baryoh, 26, will start his second year at Sacramento City College in the fall. He has experienced tough financial choices as a husband, a part-time worker, a full-time student and father of a toddler. As a student government leader at Sac City, he’s also heard from many other students struggling to get an education while earning enough to pay for food, lodging and health care.

“Sometimes I have to choose between putting food on the table or paying for a book,” Baryoh said. “Sometimes I’d rather put food on the table for my family than to have the book. Sometimes, I will tell the professor, ‘I cannot afford the book,’ and he or she will give me a spare book in his or her office. Or sometimes, I will go to the library and print out a whole chapter of a book, so I can read it and keep up with my class. It does make it hard.”

Allison noted that 56 percent of students attending Los Rios are low-income and that 32 percent of them live below the poverty line. The cost of textbooks and supplies averages $1,792 a year for a California community college student, she said, while tuition is $1,380 for a full-time student taking 15 units in both fall and spring.

To help Los Rios students shoulder the financial burden, Sutter committed to giving $512,500 over five years. Three other companies are providing the remainder of the gift: Wells Fargo has contributed $90,000 over the last two years. Sacramento’s SAFE Credit Union donated $120,000 that will benefit both eligible Promise Scholarship recipients and students who work at American River College’s STEM Center. Roseville-based VSP Global contributed $30,000.

Ten percent of any donations go to the Los Rios Promise Endowment to help future students in need cover the costs of college.

“Part of our push right now through the Promise program is to get students to go full-time, but there’s a cost for that,” Allison said. “They can’t work as much. They can’t meet certain needs. If we could come alongside and partner through our philanthropy, we could keep these students in school and get them on track either to go to a four-year or into the workforce and on to a better life.”

Sutter executive Holly Harper said Baryoh is exactly the type of student Sutter hopes its $512,500 gift will help. This kind of investment in workforce development, she said, translates into greater stability for a family and improvements in their health outcomes now and in the future.

“We can invest in young people before they have to experience acute need,” said Harper, the director of external affairs for the Sutter Health Valley Area. Baryoh “was the perfect example of why we do this. It’s food insecurity. It’s housing. It’s health insurance.”

If students can spend less time worrying about how to meet immediate needs, they can take preventive steps to maintain good health, she said. Studies have shown that college graduates have better health outcomes than individuals with less education.

To get the chance to secure a Los Rios Promise Scholarship, students must fill out either the California Dream Act application or the Free Application for Student Aid, more commonly known as the FAFSA. The California Promise program requires that applicants take at least 12 units a semester and meet other criteria to have their tuition paid.

Students may qualify, for instance, if their families receive federal funds from certain programs or if their income or their family’s income meets certain federal guidelines or if they are the dependent of a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Once Los Rios knows which students have secured the state tuition award, Allison said, they then look for the neediest students who are taking 15 units a semester. For the upcoming fall semester, Los Rios has only enough funding to offer awards to 120 incoming freshmen. The funding for that came from the Wells Fargo donation.

“Next year, though, we already know we can offer more,” Allison said. Over the next year, the $752,500 will affect a total of 1,234 students, she said.

The board of Los Rios Colleges Foundation committed to making the Promise Scholarships a reality almost two years ago, Allison said, and she has begun spreading the word not only to corporations but also to individuals. She stressed that any size donation can help.

“Every amount matters,” she said. “It’s a community college student, so $100, $500 is life-changing for a student in school.”

In addition to Sac City, Los Rios operates American River College, Cosumnes River College and Folsom Lake College.

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Cathie Anderson covers health care for The Bee. Growing up, her blue-collar parents paid out of pocket for care. She joined The Bee in 2002, with roles including business columnist and features editor. She previously worked at papers including the Dallas Morning News, Detroit News and Austin American-Statesman.