Three years in, organizers of the KC Scholars say the non-profit program has been a tremendous success, helping hundreds of high school students and adults in the metro area obtain a college education that might otherwise have been out of reach.

In 2017-19, KC Scholars has awarded post-secondary scholarships or seed money for college savings accounts to 110 students in the Independence School District, 60 more to Fort Osage, 39 to students in the Blue Springs School District and 59 to students in Grain Valley, Oak Grove, Lee's Summit North and St. Michael the Archangel.

“I don't think anything is more important to care about or invest in (than education),” President/CEO Beth Tankersley-Bankhead said, noting that numerous studies show the greater income drawn by those with post-secondary education, which in turn can mean more money invested in a regional economy.

“It matters to individual, and it's important for future generations,” she said during a celebration luncheon this week at the Drumm Farm Center for Children in Independence.

Among those students is Van Horn senior Dominic Torres, who plans to attend UMKC and major in business marketing. Last spring he received one of the traditional scholarships: $10,000 a year for up to five years at one of the 17 colleges or universities in the KC Scholars network.

Torres will be the first in his family to attend college, which KC Scholars says is the case for about three-fourths of its recipients. He says his family is like what he believes many others at Van Horn are – working class without much ability to save for college.

“They were relieved they don't have to pay, but then they were happy for me,” he said, This is something their parents wanted for their kids.

“It's an opportunity I never would've had. “It's an opportunity to show my parents, I can do it for them and myself.”

KC Scholars originated from the Kauffman Foundation and is dedicated to helping students from low- and moderate-income families with post-secondary education. The Kauffman Foundation has committed $79 million over the next 10 years to ensure scholarships for 2,000 students. It awards three different categories of scholarships:

• Traditional scholarships like Torres'. KC Scholars plans to award up to 250 around the metro area this year.

• Adult learner scholarships that are $5,000 per year renewable for five years – awarded to at least 200 adults age 24-older to have at least 12 college credits and planned to enroll next fall.

• $50 in seed money in a college savings account for 500 high school freshmen, a few of whom will have matching and incentive opportunities to reach up to $7,000.

KC Scholars said about by next year nearly two-thirds of the workforce will require some kind of post-secondary education, and not nearly enough high graduates in the area meet that benchmark.

Tankersley-Bankhead traces part of that to lack of funds.

“They want to, they're capable and driven and have dreams, but it's not affordable,” she said.

KC Scholars also knows its start-up funding won't nearly close the gap by itself, hence the need to continue fundraising.

“We believe KC Scholars is a community asset, a community movement,” said Nancy Kimak one of the founding donors.

A few numbers KC Scholars has tracked:

• 88 percent of adult learners who started college in the fall of 2017 persisted to the second year, compared with a national rate of 54 percent for the same age. Nine percent of adult learners completed their degrees in their first year.

• 98 percent of traditional scholarship recipients enrolled in college the fall after high school graduation, compared with 66 percent around the metro region. (Some have attended colleges outside the KC Scholars network.)

• 60 percent of students in the college savings match and incentive program made one contribution into their account the first year, and 37 percent made two or more contributions.

• About 80 percent of college graduates from the metro area then join the workforce here.

“Our scholars are in college, they're doing well, and they'll be back in our workforce soon,” Tankersley-Bankhead said.

For Torres, the scholarship in his pockets takes a weight off and allows him to better enjoy his senior year.

“Now all I have to do is what I'm passionate about,” he said. “It's not only helping me, helping my entire family.”