When Brandy Linker started college in 2012, she was earning $200 a week waiting tables and paying $100 a week in childcare for her 3-year-old son, Aiden.
“It was $200 a week, if I was lucky,” Brandy clarifies. “It was a really big struggle.”
A 26-year-old single mother from Russellville, Arkansas, Brandy had taken out loans to help pay tuition for her first semester at Arkansas Tech University, where she was studying to become a nurse. But as many adult students who enroll in college years after high school discover, there were few scholarships available to help ease her financial burden.
Then, she found information about the Arkansas Single Parent Scholarship Fund, a nonprofit organization focused exclusively on helping reduce the financial obstacles to post-secondary education for mothers and fathers raising kids on their own.
Brandy, who had maintained straight A grades despite the challenges of juggling work, school and motherhood, put in her application. She secured her first scholarship before the start of her second semester. Until she graduated with a Bachelor of Science in the spring of 2016, Brandy received between $700 and $750 per semester from the scholarship fund.
The financial aid helped change Brandy’s life – it was, essentially, an investment in her future and her son’s future. Although she held multiple jobs throughout college, she was able to work a little less and study a lot more.
Her 3.97 GPA at graduation helped her land two nursing jobs, in the intensive care units at Baptist Medical Health Center in Little Rock and St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Russellville. She has been accepted to multiple graduate schools to pursue her Master of Science degree and become a nurse practitioner.
“I am one of those few people who gets to work a job and get paid to do what they love,” she says.
Brandy’s success story embodies the mission of the Arkansas Single Parent Scholarship Fund, which launched in the mid-1980s in Benton and Washington counties. Helen Walton was an enthusiastic supporter of the scholarships as a vehicle for creating opportunity for single parents with limited means. The Walton Family Foundation provided early funding – and Helen played a key role in the fund’s expansion to a statewide organization that now awards scholarships to parents in all 75 Arkansas counties.
The Walton Charitable Support Foundation is among the current funders of the scholarships – and has offered dollar-for-dollar matching funds as incentives to boost local fundraising for fund affiliates in each county. In more impoverished Arkansas counties, the funding match rose to 160%.
Since the fund was launched, it has provided more than 42,000 scholarships worth over $24 million.
“If you live in Arkansas, you have almost certainly met somebody who was in our program,” says Ruthanne Hill, the fund’s executive director.
The scholarships are open to custodial single parents of dependent children 18 years old or younger, or severely disabled adult dependents, who earn less than 250% of the federal poverty rate.
Scholarships can be used to pay for expenses such as tuition, transportation, food, computers and childcare. “Any barrier that would prohibit students from continuing in school or cause them to drop out,” Ruthanne says.
The average scholarship recipient is between 25 and 35 years old. About 95% are women. Students are required to keep their grades up to be eligible for ongoing financial aid. Each year, about 90% of all scholarship recipients either graduate or re-enroll in college, Ruthanne says.
For Brandy, the scholarships set her on a path to a more secure financial future – she earns more than four times now than she did before receiving her degree.
But the program also enabled her to realize her life’s purpose.
“There are so many people like me who just didn’t figure out what they wanted in life until a little later, until circumstances help them figure it out,” she says. “It took having Aiden as a single mom for me to know what I wanted to do.”
Before she had a child, Brandy didn’t believe she needed a college education and wasn’t focused on pursuing a career beyond waitressing. Then, eight weeks after her son was born, he developed a serious viral infection in his lungs and spent five weeks in hospital before recovering.
“The nurses were my saving grace,” she says. “They were the people who were nice to me and helped me out. I just thought, I want to be a nurse. I can be there for people, like my nurses were there for me.”
As she went through college, receiving scholarships and attending ceremonies hosted by her local scholarship fund affiliate to celebrate her academic achievements, Brandy realized how important it was for her son to see “that you can build your self-esteem and get a sense of who you are through academic achievement. I want that for him, too.”