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Gresham School District Hits Milestone, Raises $1M For Students’ Scholarship Fund

Endowment Began 20 Years Ago With Donations From Community Members

Students in graduation caps and gowns
Seth Wenig/AP Photo

Twenty years ago, a school district in Shawano County in central Wisconsin committed to raising money to help its seniors afford college.

Thanks to that effort, the Gresham School District recently surpassed a milestone of raising $1 million for the Gresham Scholarship Fund, said Bob Klopke, a former principal of 14 years of Gresham School, who started the scholarship fund in 2001.

The village with a population of 504 isn’t wealthy — Gresham’s poverty rate is 21.6 percent. In comparison, Wisconsin as a whole has a poverty rate of 11.9 percent. But community support from those in the village and from people who grew up there isn’t in short supply, and the donations have added up over the last 20 years.

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“The community has been a strong supporter,” Klopke said. “And our graduates over the years have been good supporters of this program.”

This year, Klopke said the endowment is awarding $3,250 per student.

Supporters of the endowment are hopeful the funding will help students graduate college with a little less debt. Wisconsin falls in the middle when it comes to tuition costs for 4-year and technical colleges, said Nicholas Hillman, an associate professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education who directs the Student Success through Applied Research Lab.

The state’s 4-year colleges’ average tuition and fees were $8,409 for in-state students and $24,376 for out-of-state students during the 2020-2021 academic school year.

Hoffman said part of the challenge for public colleges and universities is decreased support from the state. And even though Wisconsin’s colleges have been on a tuition freeze since 2013, costs still rise with non-tuition expenses.

Hoffman added that with rising costs, Wisconsin and states across the nation are seeing students dropping out of college for reasons that include not being able to afford it. Those students often get stuck with the debt and don’t have a degree to show for it.

“This is sort of the worst of both worlds, where you’ve got this debt hanging over into your early life course and not a job that has the same kind of payoff for it,” he said.

In hopes of encouraging students to stay in school and to continue earning at least a C average, Gresham’s scholarship program has added some stipulations to the delivery of funds. Students receive the scholarship only after completing the first semester of post-secondary education in good standing, and they must be enrolled for a second semester as a full-time student.

To be eligible for the scholarship, students submit an application that Klopke estimates takes about 20 minutes to fill out. Basic requirements for eligibility include having a grade-point average of at least 2.0, being a senior and planning to pursue post-secondary education.

To discourage favoritism, the applications are evaluated by members of the Community Foundation of the Fox Valley Region.

“They’re located in Appleton, and they’re far enough away that hopefully anything that they do in terms of judging the applications is fair and equitable,” Klopke said.

Klopke was careful to time the launch of Gresham’s program until after his children graduated. He had three daughters in his school at the time and didn’t want it to appear as though he was trying to finance his own children’s education.

He waited until his youngest graduated and then began sending letters to community members to gauge interest and net support.

“It all fell into place, little by little,” he said.