WORTHINGTON The world of higher education funding can get rather complicated, with a variety of federal, state and individual payment mechanisms at work. Add to the mix a college foundation, and it can become unclear what role that organization plays.

A foundation is essentially an independent legal entity created for charitable purposes. In the case of the Minnesota West Foundation, our mission is rather simple — to provide resources necessary to support learners for a lifetime of success. That primarily means scholarship funding, as we look to help students offset the financial burdens associated with college. Last year, our foundation awarded approximately 125 scholarships totaling approximately $100,000. Although this is a fraction of what some larger foundations are able to dole out each year (Harvard University, for example awarded over $645 million in financial assistance in 2020), these scholarship dollars can mean the difference for some students between getting a second job or focusing more effectively on their classwork.

We are certainly proud that we can provide these dollars to our students, but as stated above we also know this is only a fraction of what individuals need financially to attend college. Even a lower cost, a two-year school such as Minnesota West Community and Technical College still requires sacrifices by students as they strive to navigate work, family, internships and classwork in pursuit of a degree.

Because the Minnesota West Foundation is a separate 501c3 charitable organization, its funding and structure are almost completely distinct from the college it supports. Although it requires us to be relatively self-sufficient, much like a private business, it also gives us the flexibility to be nimble and adjust quickly to the needs of students.

For example, this past year the Minnesota West Foundation embarked upon a campaign to raise funds for student emergency needs, many of which surfaced as a result of the pandemic. Due to the enormous generosity of supporters across our college communities, we raised approximately $25,000 for unforeseen financial needs by students. Before federal stimulus dollars made it to our colleges in the spring of 2020, the newly created Bluejay Emergency Fund began helping students with everything from rent payments to phone bills to daycare costs and more. The fund is now a permanent part of our foundation’s support structure for students at the college, available to students when the more “bureaucratic” processes of traditional financial aid are unavailable for immediate needs.

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As the pandemic slowly subsides and our communities begins to re-open to group events, the Minnesota West Foundation will continue to partner with its college and engage with our constituents — through hosting dinner theaters or celebrating diversity with its Celebrations Around the World event on the Worthington campus; by supporting technical programs in Canby via its annual Xtravaganza burger feed and raffle; by connecting scholarship donors with scholarship recipients at brunches and dinners across the college; and by continuing to look for ways to reconnect with alumni and share with them all of the exciting developments across our five campuses and two centers. Our foundation exists because of the support of alumni, businesses and friends of the college who understand the need for affordable, local community and technical education and training. We are sincerely grateful for the support of our foundation, and more importantly, for the support of our students’ success.

Michael Van Keulen is executive director of the Minnesota West Foundation.