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University of Texas at San Antonio senior and first-generation college student Alexes Salazar knew she wanted to go to college, but the steep price tag of a higher education left her discouraged.

In her junior year of high school, Salazar applied for and received the Harvey Najim Scholarship from the San Antonio Area Foundation (SAAF). The $2,000 per semester scholarship is helping Salazar, who also receives federal financial aid, graduate in three and half years in December with just a few thousand dollars in debt.

A study examining the impact of the Area Foundation’s scholarship program by the UTSA Urban Education Institute released in late May found that students who receive a scholarship from SAAF, which since 1969 has awarded more than $37 million in merit scholarships to local students, are a lot like Salazar. They are more likely to graduate on time from a four-year university and to have less student loan debt than their peers who did not get a scholarship, said Mike Villarreal, the institute’s director.

“The San Antonio Area Foundation Scholarship Program isn’t moving the needle a little bit,” he said. “It’s moving it a lot.”

Now a new multimillion dollar scholarship program administered by the Area Foundation will be able to help more students in Bexar and Webb counties attain their higher education goals, part of the study’s recommendations. The foundation will award $2 million each year to 50 high school juniors who qualify for the Legacy Scholarship, with each student receiving $40,000. The first scholarship recipients will be announced in spring 2022.

Lisa Brunsvold, the Area Foundation’s vice president of development and donor services, said the “transformational” gift from an anonymous donor will bolster the foundation’s more than 100 different scholarship funds, which awarded just under $5 million in scholarships to 500 students in 2020. In five years, there will be four cohorts of Legacy Scholars, representing an $8 million investment in 200 students.

“Those numbers alone demonstrate the enormity of what we’ve received and the trust that the donor had in our ability to manage the legacy that they wanted to leave,” she said.

Brunsvold said the foundation designed the Legacy Scholarship to have the most impact on the community by not setting income requirements to qualify for the scholarship and expanding SAAF’s reach to Webb County, a border county that includes Laredo. Recipients must attend a Texas college and be civic-minded “demonstrated leaders” in their communities with a minimum grade-point average of 2.5. The Area Foundation is still working on specific requirements for the application, which will be available in the fall.

The UTSA study recommendations included expanding the scholarship program to reach more students and increasing the amount of money available for scholarships, Villarreal said. The Legacy Scholarship will help with these efforts, as the need for scholarships far exceeds the supply right now.

“Increasing the fund by $2 million is going to help us expand access to this significant intervention that boosts on-time college graduation rates and reduces student loans,” he said.

The SAAF Scholarship Program is the largest locally funded scholarship program in San Antonio. The foundation commissioned the research study for about $83,400 in 2018 to have an outside entity evaluate the effectiveness of the scholarship program, Brunsvold said. The Urban Education Institute examined the outcomes of students who received a scholarship in the past 10 years. Then researchers compared scholarship recipients to students who attended the same schools and had the same social demographic characteristics, high school coursework, and standardized test scores.

The study found that an average scholarship of roughly $7,000 increased on-time graduation by 44% over students who did not receive a scholarship, Villarreal said. Student debt also decreased by about $4,500 on average.

Salazar advised current high school juniors to apply for the scholarships SAAF offers because the price of college should not deter them from pursuing their dreams, she said. She also encouraged students to find ways to stand out among their peers by keeping up their grades and participating in extracurricular and community service activities.

“Getting the scholarship really helped me because it covered the rest of my tuition so that I wouldn’t have to work full time,” she said. “It offered me a lot of opportunity and time to create connections and to have internships. Some of them weren’t paid, and I was able to do that because I wasn’t worrying about having to work full time and be a full time student.”

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.