Rocky foundation 

UM scholarship funding remains tough to project

An emergency fundraising effort by the University of Montana Foundation at the beginning of the year succeeded in averting a major scholarship funding crisis on the UM campus. But with the country struggling to regain economic stability and many of the foundation's scholarships backed by private investments, the funding forecast for next school year remains difficult to project.

"We maintained scholarships this year pretty much the same as last year, and we're hoping we'll be able to do the same next year, hoping the stock market improves," says Mick Hanson, financial aid director at UM. "It hasn't been as bad a year as last year, but it still hasn't recovered."

Officials at the UM Foundation remain mostly positive regarding the continued stability of scholarship funding. But contributions from the foundation totaled $3.9 million in fiscal year 2009, and any fluctuations in the stock market could challenge its ability to meet that same level in 2010. Hanson says the delicacy of the situation has him "absolutely nervous."

"I'm expecting that we'll have some drop-off in scholarships next spring, but I don't know that for sure," Hanson says. "Realistically speaking, I think we have to be aware that we did use some [emergency funding] last year and I'm not sure how the gifts to the foundation have gone this year."

The UM Foundation awards an estimated 500 privately funded scholarships a year ranging in value from $500 to $2,000. These scholarships, which are mostly merit based, contribute to tuition and other expenses for 1,000 UM students.

But the recession threw scholarship-funding levels for fall 2009 into serious question. The UM Foundation launched a fundraising program last December titled "1,000 Promises to Keep" and succeeded in raising $250,000 to counter the effects of a faltering economy. The sum still fell far short of preserving the foundation's scholarships, prompting President George Dennison to pull $1.5 million from a general account financed through UM license plate sales. Interest from the account has helped supplement shortfalls in academic scholarship funding for years.

"You know as well as I do, when you take the money and you spend it, the income is gone forever," Hanson says. "And that's what we did."

click to enlarge Logan Bloom is one of the 1,000 students at the University of Montana who nearly lost scholarship funding earlier this year due to the recession. The continued stability of that funding is questionable going into 2010. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Logan Bloom is one of the 1,000 students at the University of Montana who nearly lost scholarship funding earlier this year due to the recession. The continued stability of that funding is questionable going into 2010.

Mark Armstrong, communication and marketing director at the foundation, says he has watched the stock market carefully the past few months, aware that fluctuations could hurt the private investments that back the majority of scholarships. With the market appearing stronger, he sees no immediate need for a "round two" of "1,000 Promises to Keep."

"Based on where the economy is today—and we're going to watch it very closely—we don't think that's going to be necessary right now," Armstrong says. "Hopefully this kind of success and this kind of fundraising and support from our donors will continue...That's not to say the market won't dip to the south here on us and we'll have to readjust. But based on where things are now, we're pretty optimistic."

If the stock market does take another plunge in coming months, Armstrong says the foundation can rally with a fundraising program in a matter of weeks. Whether a second program would inspire the same amount of support from private donors is entirely speculative.

For now, students like Logan Bloom, 21, are just glad their scholarship money has held out another year. Bloom, a UM junior from Stevensville, says the scholarships he receives from the Montana University System and the UM Foundation are his ticket to higher education.

"Last year, I was stressing," says Bloom. "I was sitting there thinking, 'Great, what if my scholarship's gone? What am I going to do?' I'm already working, so there's not much I can do with that...It'd be really difficult to keep my grades up with working more."

Bloom's younger sister, Seeley, and older brother, Mackenzie, are also on academic scholarships at UM. His father works in construction in Ravalli County and his mother is an elementary school secretary, but they don't have the kind of money it takes to put three kids through college at once, Bloom says.

"Pretty much the deciding factor for me coming to the university was those scholarships," Bloom says. "I'm basically going to school for free, besides paying rent and whatnot. Without that, I'd have all my student loans like everyone else. With my family, since we've got three kids in college already, I couldn't ask my parents to help me out. I'm already working a job, so I think it'd just be overwhelming. I don't know how a lot of kids do it."

Bloom has only one more year at UM before completing his business degree. At this point he's more worried about his sister, who started at UM this year.

"She could be in trouble because she has one or two smaller university scholarships," Bloom says. "Hopefully we just keep building awareness of this to the donors and alumni, try to get more donations."

The security of endowed scholarships may remain questionable, but Armstrong puts a positive spin on the situation. He notes the UM Foundation experienced its second most lucrative fundraising period between June 2008 and June 2009, and says if things don't improve other emergency funding options still exist. But the money's tight enough to leave Hanson appreciative of whatever funding sources he can find for students.

"We're thankful for every scholarship dollar available," he says.

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