CLEVELAND - It's never easy.
There are many obstacles to getting that college degree. Money is often the biggest of all. And it is the number one reason why students fail to get their degree when they are just a semester or two from graduation.
Cleveland State University started taking a look at students who had to delay or stop their studies just a few credits short of receiving their diploma.
Students like Tomika Ballard.
"I see why a lot of people don't graduate. Because you can not afford it. Once you exhaust your loans, your grants you can't afford that," Ballard said when we met her at CSU's Student Center Atrium.
Ballard was working full time and raising a family when she started at Cleveland State in 2010. "I wrote essays. I did whatever it took to get extra money because it's hard," she recalled.
Her dream of a degree in business administration wouldn't come easy. But Ballard is driven by her present and her past. "I was brought up in the projects and I never wanted that for my children. So I did whatever I had to do to make sure that didn't happen. And that didn't happen," said Ballard.
The "wouldn't be easy" part reared its ugly head when Ballard ran out of money in the home stretch. She never gave up on her dream but thought it would just take longer to reach. That's when an email from the school landed in Ballard's inbox. Too good to be true, she ignored it.
"They actually emailed me one day and told me I was eligible for the Last Mile Grant. I was like, "This can't be right!" I had exhausted all the money they are going to give me. This is a mistake, so I didn't even bother with it and then they reached out to me again," Ballard recalled.
"Stop out" is the term Dr. Cindy Skaruppa uses to characterize students who are striving to be successful yet have run out of financial resources. As Vice President of Enrollment Services, she says there is nothing like the reaction of a student who gets the help needed to see them through.
"You can imagine the elation, the relief if you will for the students who are awarded this scholarship. Because that puts them across the stage and the finish line," Skaruppa said.
The Last Mile Program is a new initiative supported by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the Coalition of Urban Service Universities. The program provides financial assistance for undergraduate students who have exhausted their financial aid and are within one to two semesters of graduation.
The Last Mile Grant provides support of up to $1,200 per semester, based on financial need. The program is made possible by donations to the Cleveland State University Foundation.
"I feel like I was blessed with a lot of good people in my life who supported me 100 maybe 200%. They went out of their way to make sure I got my education," said Ballard.
This past December, she graduated from Cleveland State with a B.A. in Business Administration. She continues to work for the Cuyahoga County Department of Public Works and credits the support of her co-workers and employers to help her achieve this dream.
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