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Kansas City Area High School Students Get Big Scholarships Great Jobs KC Awarding $48 Million in Scholarships to 1,210 Students

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Above image credit: Students and staff at North Kansas City High School celebrate the new cohort of KC Scholars chosen from the school’s junior class on May 1, 2023. The program provides recipients with financial aid and “wraparound supports” to make college accessible. (Courtesy | KC Scholars)
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6 minute read

At noon on May 1, Mariah Durgan sat in the cafeteria of North Kansas City High School, anxiously refreshing her email and asking friends and classmates if they had received anything in their inboxes. 

Two hours later, while she was in class, she saw the notification. She received a scholarship that would help her become the first person in her family to go to college. 

“It’s shocking to see something so life- and future-changing in the middle of class,” she said. 

Durgan is one of over 1,200 students from 87 high schools in the Kansas City area selected to join the KC Scholars program and receive $48 million in scholarships to help make college attainable.  

This year’s class of scholars was chosen from a pool of over 2,400 applicants based on their grades, personal statements, recommendation letters and financial need. Recipients will be formally recognized at a celebration on Saturday in the Kansas City Convention Center’s Grand Ballroom. 

Great Jobs KC, the organization running the KC Scholars program, offers three types of scholarships, including a college-savings match for ninth-grade students, a scholarship for adults who want to go back to school, and the “traditional” scholarship for eleventh-grade students.  

Durgan received the traditional scholarship, which includes both financial aid and what program CEO Earl Martin Phalen described as “wraparound supports” — things like advocates and mentors, summer bridge programs, help with finding internships and other opportunities, and community-building within student cohorts.  

Yasmiin Farah, another junior at North Kansas City High School and recipient of the traditional scholarship, said she is grateful for the program’s support system aspect.  

“For me, even getting this scholarship wouldn’t be possible without other people helping me. Having support really helped drive me to even apply for KC Scholars, so knowing that they’re not gonna leave me in the dust, they’re still gonna help me through the process, is amazing,” she said. “I think I’ll be a little less intimidated having that kind of support.” 

The 2023 cohort of KC Scholars from North Kansas City High School poses for a photo on Awards Day, May 1, 2023.
The 2023 cohort of KC Scholars from North Kansas City High School poses for a photo on Awards Day, May 1, 2023. Mariah Durgan, a 2024 recipient of the scholarship, said students from past cohorts helped her complete and refine her application. (Courtesy | KC Scholars)

More Than Just Money 

While money remains a major barrier to accessing higher education both locally and nationwide — residents in Missouri and Kansas owe an average of $34,500 and $31,700 in student loans, respectively — Phalen said there are other challenges to overcome, as well, which is why the KC Scholars program offers wraparound supports.

He added that these supports have helped previous classes of scholars so much so that the colleges and universities participating in the program — all located in Kansas and Missouri to keep scholars close to home — also donate to the scholarship fund.  

“Our universities have decided to also financially support the scholarships because of not just the enrollment, but also because they know our students are going to be successful on their campuses,” Phalen said. 

In addition to helping with “hard skills” through tutoring or mentoring, Phalen said, the program also strives to “help with the soft pieces.” 

“The number one reason that students drop out of college is financial, right? Behind that, at number two, is the belief that ‘I don’t belong. I never felt I belonged. I couldn’t find my community,’” he said. “The good news about us sending our scholars to schools in Kansas and Missouri only is that we can help with that belonging.” 

By keeping scholars close to home, he said, the program has been able to build cohorts of students who can support and connect with one another, including through “an ambassador program where we have students who are upperclassmen on campus who are creating events that allow you to socialize and connect with other students.” 

“We just try to help with the hard skills to be successful, but also the soft skills that you need to feel a sense of belonging,” Phalen said.  

These supports, he added, have already proven their efficacy. The program boasts “a 70 percent graduation rate, which is two times the national average for first-generation students.” 

Marketing Push 

This and other benefits of the program are emphasized to high school students around the Kansas City metro area, including at North Kansas City High School, where Durgan said she and other students are strongly encouraged to apply. 

“My school posted posters everywhere they could, and they were very adamant that everyone who could apply should apply to the scholarship,” she said. “And a bunch of my counselors were also very adamant about helping with the process and getting everyone to apply.” 

But the encouragement was not only at school. Durgan said that throughout her life her family pushed her to succeed in school so she could one day go to college.  

“The number one reason that students drop out of college is financial, right? Behind that, at number two, is the belief that ‘I don’t belong. I never felt I belonged. I couldn’t find my community. The good news about us sending our scholars to schools in Kansas and Missouri only is that we can help with that belonging.” 

– Earl Martin Phalen, CEO of Great Jobs KC

“It has always been something that I wanted to do. Even though my family doesn’t have any experience with college, because of my love for knowledge, ever since I was a kid, they had been pushing me to get the best grades I’m able to get in order to get into college,” she said.  

Inspired by her school counselor’s commitment to helping students, Durgan hopes to use her scholarship to pursue a pre-med track at the University of Missouri-Columbia. 

“Anything I needed, she would help me get, and seeing her be such a kind person towards me and other students really inspired me to help other people, and it led me down the whole medicine and health care route,” Durgan said. 

Farah, a student in the Advancement Via Individual Determination class — a college-readiness course she has been a part of since she was in middle school — said she has been hearing about the scholarship through her class for years and was encouraged to apply by her teachers.  

Farah also hopes to attend MU, where her older sister is currently studying, to pursue a degree in health care, a career she said she has dreamed of doing since she was a child.  

The daughter of immigrants from Somalia, she said her parents had always pushed her and her siblings to do well in school and pursue higher education, an opportunity they had not had. 

“My dad didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, so his dream was always for his kids to go to college and have an education,” she said. “My parents know education will mean more opportunities for us.” 

“It’s something I always strived for when I was little, so it was really exciting to have that moment finally come and know that it’s something that can come to me, like a dream that will come. (It’s) not even a dream anymore — honestly, it’s a reality now,” she added. “The day they found out, my dad and my mom were just so excited, and I felt like everything I worked for in school finally paid off, in a way.” 

Juniors from Oak Park High School pose for a photo after learning they were selected to join the KC Scholars program on May 1, 2023.
Juniors from Oak Park High School pose for a photo after learning they were selected to join the KC Scholars program on May 1, 2023. The program boasts a 70 percent graduation rate. (Courtesy of KC Scholars)

Growth Plans 

Phalen said that while he’s proud of how the program has grown over time, there’s still more progress to be made. 

“The disappointing part in all the beauty is that for the over 1,000 kids getting scholarships, we had another 1,000 kids that actually met our qualifications, but we didn’t have the funding (to give them scholarships),” he said. “That’s what we continue to drive for. To our community, please join us, please walk beside us.” 

“One day we want to say not that 1,210 young people got scholarships — we want to say 2,500 young people got scholarships,” he added. “That’s a great thing for Kansas City — the young people are getting scholarships, going to good schools right here in our region, and coming back and being the future lawyers and doctors and nonprofit leaders and teachers and entrepreneurs and other professionals that make a community thrive.” 

Applications for the adult-learner program will open Nov. 6 and close Dec. 6, with decisions coming out Feb. 20, 2025. Applications for the college-savings match and traditional scholarships — for ninth- and eleventh-grade students, respectively — will be open from Jan. 9 until Feb. 28, with awards announced May 1.  

Ceilidh Kern is a graduate of the University of Missouri journalism school and a summer intern at Kansas City PBS/Flatland.


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