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For many students, ESF making college possible

Jackson — The mission for Education Services Foundation (ESF) is simple. It’s to help Mississippi students go to college. ESF is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1995 with the purpose of fulfilling that mission by providing free assistance to students and parents.

“A college education is essential for success in today’s world,” said Ken Smith, ESF executive director. “We believe that a successful college education is attainable by almost anyone with the dream and desire to see it through. All it takes is hard work, determination, proper planning and adequate financial assistance. Our team stands ready to assist with all four.”

Although ESF bills itself as ‘the-planning-and-paying-for-college company,’ it is not a for-profit company. Nor is it a state agency. According to manager of marketing Barbara McDonald, ESF is a lender.

“Because we’re non-profit, the government allows a certain amount of profit from student loan consolidations to be put back into the loan pool,” she said. “We finance assistance through Federal student loans and try to make them affordable for everyone. We do not charge an origination fee so students get 100% of the loan. We pay that fee for the students.”

ESF will also cut a loan’s interest rate by 2% for students and parents if an automatic debit is done on repayment. They have been named the consolidation loan lender of choice by the alumni associations of the University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi. With tuition continuing to increase, McDonald says more parents are taking advantage of these loans.

She stresses that ESF is a Mississippi-based corporation to help Mississippi students. There are 55 employees and a distinguished board of directors.

“We have some directors knowledgeable in banking and some in education. It’s a perfect blend of the two,” she said. “They’re very involved in the decisions and giving guidance; making sure we follow our mission and always keeping that mission in mind.”

Asked if the state’s students and their families know about ESF, McDonald responded, “It gets better and better every year. We have beefed up our advertising and our counselors go to schools to do workshops. We also have an aggressive direct mail campaign to seniors, mailing them two things each month.”

ESF’s counselors have been in 80% of state high schools and conducted 490 workshops last year. That number would have been higher if Hurricane Katrina hadn’t interfered with schools on the Gulf Coast. The foundation assisted more than 35,000 students, parents and educators through regional college fairs and provided individual counseling to more than 4,500 students in ESF resource centers.

The high numbers are reached through large regional college fairs as opposed to each high school holding its own college night or career day as was the custom of the past. The largest of these fairs is held in Jackson at the Trade Mart where as many as 10,000 students attend. Buses arrive all day and ESF provides funding for the buses with no cost to the schools. Other regional fairs around the state have as many as 6,000 students attending.

“Two years ago Parents & Kids Magazine got involved and we started doing these college fairs around the state,” McDonald said. “That’s when we saw the numbers really begin to rise.”

Currently, ESF has two resource centers in Jackson for one-on-one counseling. At these centers, counselors help students explore careers and college selection; fill out financial aid applications and admission forms; build resumes; assist with ACT and SAT preparation; and try to find financial aid and scholarships for them.

“There is a maze of forms and opportunities out there,” McDonald said. “It’s our job to help students and parents navigate through them.”

ESF sponsored a scholarship essay competition this school year with 1,127 students entering from all over the state. The essay asked students to express their thoughts on what they would bury in a time capsule to be opened in 50 years. Sixty winners were selected to win $1,000 scholarships. McDonald says the main focus of ESF’s annual meeting May 2 will be honoring these students.

Begun eight years ago, Delta Outreach is a special program targeting an area with a high poverty level and fewer students going to college. “We saw this as an underserved area, and our mission is to start with students in 9th grade and give them a vision that they can go to college,” McDonald said. “Our counselor, Marsha Watson, works with them all through high school with weekly mentoring and intensive counseling.”

In 2005, Watson worked with 135 students in three schools. She sometimes takes the students on college bus tours which for many are their first time outside their home county. This school year, Watson took the students far from their home counties all the way to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

Dickinson heard about Delta Outreach, and looking to diversify the student population, invited the students for a visit. As a result, four Delta students will attend school there on scholarships.

“The program has been successful. Most of the students go on to college or join the military,” McDonald said. “There are plans to expand it to other areas to help more students.”

Partnering with Gear Up MS, a national program administered through the State Institutions of Higher Learning, ESF received a grant to set up this same type of program in six additional high schools in Jackson, Yazoo City, Lexington, Durant and Rolling Fork. ESF will pass on the successful Delta model and Watson will train the counselors.

Choices Planner, an Internet-based career and education planning program, went online in 2005 thanks to funding from ESF, which gave a grant to the state. The service is being placed in all public high schools and community colleges and has been well received.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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