Aaron Starks: Helping students afford higher education benefits all of us

SLCC’s PACE program helps first-generation college students.

(Photo courtesy Salt Lake Community College) Salt Lake Community College Taylorsville Redwood Campus

Kyra knew if she didn’t get a scholarship, college was not an option. She didn’t need to be told. In high school she could not afford a computer, home wi-fi access or college application fees, let alone afford a college tuition.

But Kyra was hopeful and looking for opportunities to beat the barriers ahead of her. In her freshman year at Highland High School, she discovered the PACE program, and recognized that this could be her shot at college. She would be the first in her family to pursue a higher education path.

Salt Lake Community College’s PACE scholarship program provides high school freshmen support and preparation to be college ready. It also provides them a six-semester scholarship to SLCC. Once they arrive, vital support from advisors and faculty continues to ensure they earn their associate’s degree.

Since 2011, PACE has grown from 10 students at West High to encompassing more than 800 students from five local high schools. The program seeks out high school freshmen who will be the first in their families to attend college and/or demonstrate financial need (eligible for free or reduced lunch).

SLCC is a crucial stepping stone into higher education for many underserved youth. The college includes the most diverse student population among Utah’s higher education institutions, and more than two-thirds (69%) of SLCC’s students transfer to one of Utah’s four-year schools.

The PACE scholarship program is just one slice of a pie that includes a variety of scholarships and support programs that SLCC provides students. There are scholarships for nontraditional students, athletes, refugees, undocumented students, those seeking degrees in high-demand fields (e.g., surgical technicians, teaching, nursing), and for those pursuing a skilled workforce training (e.g., machinists, welders, truck drivers, diesel mechanics).

Thanks to scholarships and affordable tuition ($2,128.25/semester for full-time resident students), 78% of SLCC students graduated with no student debt last year.

Despite the drive and dreams to reach their education goals, unexpected emergencies may derail a student from staying in school. An unexpected family medical bill, a broken-down vehicle, food or housing insecurity or lack of affordable childcare services are all examples of stressors that can pull students away from completing their educational goals.

When our students have help reaching their education goals, it often brings more stability to their families, sometimes breaking a cycle of intergenerational poverty, and allows them to proudly contribute to Utah’s economy.

To avoid these derailments, SLCC has a Bruin Student Emergency Fund as well as two case workers who help students find resources and solutions when barriers threaten their ability to stay in school.

Kyra is now peer-mentoring high school students who want to be PACE Scholars. As she supports them, she remembers the help she received to keep her grades up, figure out her academic goals, and the hope and self-empowerment that came with the scholarship and support. Kyra plans on eventually earning a master’s degree in geology and hopes to one day study Greenland’s glaciers.

As a former SLCC student and now as president of the college’s Alumni Leadership Council, I’ve seen first-hand the pivotal role SLCC plays in transforming lives.

Please consider supporting SLCC, so we can help more students like Kyra pursue a brighter future. While the college has an annual Giving Day, February 16, we are always looking to partner with anyone at any time to help our remarkable students reach their dreams. We hope you will join us!

Aaron Starks | Salt Lake Community College

Aaron Starks is president and CEO of the Utah Aerospace & Defense Association. He is the president of Salt Lake Community’s Alumni Leadership Council and an advisory committee member on the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.