Harper College

Record $30 million raised for scholarships by Harper College Educational Foundation

Inspire Campaign Goal Student ScholarshipsHarper College’s Educational Foundation has raised a record $30 million through its new scholarship campaign, Inspire, making it possible for the Palatine-based community college to award more scholarships than at any other time in its 55-year-plus history.

Launched in 2020, Inspire surpassed its goal and crossed the $30 million mark in July 2023. The campaign, which has now raised almost $32 million, will continue through June 2024.

“This foundation has been incredible. We have outperformed every campaign goal we’ve ever had,” said Laura Brown, chief advancement officer and vice president of marketing and communications. “I can’t say enough about our board and our donors. Without their leadership, and without our donors caring about this college, we wouldn’t have achieved these great things.”

The idea behind Inspire was to close the equity gap in the suburbs. The foundation’s previous campaign, the Harper Promise Scholarship Program, focused on helping traditional-aged college students afford an education, but Inspire set out to help all students pursuing a degree or certificate. It could be single working parents, immigrants (documented or undocumented), first-generation college students, adults seeking a new career path, or anyone looking to achieve a dream through accessible, affordable, quality education.

The foundation’s board found that many students were interested in pursuing a college degree but couldn’t afford it due to financial or work constraints. They knew that even $500 in scholarship money was enough to make a life-changing difference for a student, allowing them to pay a babysitter or reduce their work hours so they could attend classes.

Several scholarship recipients have since shared their stories and their gratitude at foundation board meetings. Others met with donors or wrote thank you notes to them.

“Hearing someone stand up and say, ‘I didn’t think I could do this, but this scholarship got me to the finish line,’ it’s very powerful,” said Harper Educational Foundation President Brenda Knox. “That’s one of the things I love about Harper. You don’t have to give millions of dollars to make an impact.”

The Inspire campaign is helping more Harper students than ever. Over the 2022-23 academic year, the foundation awarded $5.8 million in scholarships, awards and grants to 1,847 students. Of those students, more than half were first-generation college students and more than a quarter were over the age of 25.

For this campaign, Inspire raised funds in a unique way. In addition to traditional fundraising, the foundation invited potential donors to create their own scholarships and outline criteria that were important to them.

That approach brought in 65 new donor-created scholarships, with more expected in the coming year. More than half of the new scholarships are endowed, meaning they’ll be available to students year-after-year. That’s in addition to the approximately 200 scholarship funds already created by donors. 

“If a donor wanted to fund first-generation students, they could. If they wanted to fund students in business, they could,” Brown said. “Our donors responded to that. They said, ‘I’ve always wanted to start a scholarship for a certain thing, and this is my time.’”

Knox and her husband created a scholarship before the Inspire campaign for students who were Eagle Scouts, Girl Scouts or in Civil Air Patrol, things that are near and dear to her family. She, her husband and her son are all Harper graduates.

The scholarship creates a legacy for the Knox family, she said. Like many donors, they met the recipient of their family’s scholarship, a young man who is in the Army (Knox also has a son in the military) and a criminal justice major.

“You don’t have to be a gazillionaire to make a difference,” Knox said. “When you donate to some charities, you feel like you’re making a drop in the bucket. This feels meaningful.”

Inspire Campaign Goal Reached Student Scholarships

To date, donations to Inspire have come from more than 1,544 donors. The donations have been as small as $25 and as big as $18 million, the latter being a transformational gift from philanthropist, activist and author MacKenzie Scott. Harper was among “high-impact organizations” awarded gifts from Scott, who wrote that her team identified higher education institutions that were successfully educating chronically underserved communities.

“It is fitting that our campaign is called Inspire and builds upon our largest philanthropic gift from MacKenzie Scott. All of us at Harper College are inspired by the foundation’s record-setting achievement and the life-changing impact these funds have on our students today and well into the future,” said Dr. Avis Proctor, Harper president. “We are proud that we’ve more than exceeded our original target and can truly affirm Scott’s words that ‘Generosity is generative and sharing makes more.’ We’re equally proud of the close partnership between the foundation and the college to help all students achieve their educational and career goals.”

Other sizeable gifts made to the Inspire campaign included donations from Rita and John Canning, for their namesake Women’s Program, and the Shida family, who established an endowed scholarship to help students with great financial need. In addition, there was a large surprise donation from someone previously unknown to the college, Brown said.

Inspire’s scholarships can be used for associate degrees or even a bachelor’s degree completion program through Harper’s University Center, where students can continue their education and earn four-year degrees from DePaul, Roosevelt, Northern Illinois or Southern Illinois universities without leaving the northwest suburbs.

“We provide that affordable, accessible education,” Brown said. “The scholarship money doesn’t always have to stay here, because our end goal is completion, whatever that is for you.”

The Harper College Educational Foundation, which marked its 50-year anniversary last year, succeeds by using a personable, grass-roots approach to finding and developing relationships with donors. Everyone shares a common belief that if you’re willing to work hard, you should have an opportunity to earn a two- or four-year degree.

“It’s no longer an excuse to say, we can’t afford college. We’re really going to extend a hand to help you if you need the help,” Knox said. “Harper is a real gem in our community.”

Last Updated: 2/13/24