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30 years of innovation continues to carry out Mr. K’s promise

The Inception of Project Choice
Watch: "The Inception of Project Choice" | 3:29

It started in KC when Project Choice made college a possibility; evolving over three decades supporting access and completion to cultivate the diverse, educated workforce that is Kansas City’s future.

On April 7, 1988, 240 eighth grade students and their teachers gathered in the auditorium of Westport High School to hear Ewing Kauffman, one of their school’s most famous alumni.

While the planning leading up to that day was thorough and the goals ambitious, could anyone in that room really have known how many lives would be improved, and the positive ripples that continue 30 years later, based on what Ewing Kauffman announced that day?

Mr. Kauffman believed education was the key to success in life, a one-way ticket out of poverty. He recognized that higher education helps to pave the way for young adults to obtain good-paying jobs with benefits. Mr. Kauffman recognized, however, that low-income urban students often do not have the support or opportunity to pursue a college education. He wanted to help more young people achieve that goal.

At the gathering, Mr. Kauffman promised that the Project Choice program would offer full scholarships for college or post-secondary education along with an array of support services to help the students reach their goals.

“You, you and every one of you,” he promised, “can go to college if you choose.”

Project Choice operated from 1988 to 2001 and became a signature program of the Kauffman Foundation. In addition to four full 1992 through 1995 classes at Westport High School, the program welcomed smaller cohorts of students from Harmon, Schlagle, Washington, Wyandotte high schools and Sumner Academy of Arts and Science in Kansas City, Kansas.

The next generation

Following Mr. Kauffman’s vision, the Foundation launched Kauffman Scholars Inc. in 2003. The Foundation drew upon the lessons of Project Choice and relevant research to innovate around college preparation and access to college, but most importantly, college completion among low-income students.

Through the collaborative efforts of program leaders and coaches, as well as district schools, partner colleges, community and corporate partners, and families, the program has worked to prepare Kansas City students for success in college success as well as to be ready for careers. Kauffman Scholars accepted its eighth and final class of seventh-grade students during the 2011-12 school year. With more than 800 scholars still in college, the program continues to strengthen the next generation of diverse professionals entering the Kansas City region, until the last class completes in 2022.

The community approach: Your Future. Our Future.

As the final class of Kauffman Scholars neared the start of college, the Foundation engaged the full community to support even more students’ achievement of college success.

With the help of more than 70 community members and three decades of lessons from Project Choice and Kauffman Scholars, the Foundation decided to launch and incubate a new scholarship and college savings program designed to support low- and modest-income young students and adults: Kansas City Scholars (KC Scholars).

The tagline “Your Future. Our Future” is a clear mandate for the organization that promotes college success as not only vital to the success of individuals but for the success of our entire region. Only by supporting and keeping talented people can the Kansas City region continue to thrive.

Although a 10-year commitment of support from the Kauffman Foundation establishes stability for this new organization, the long-term success of this program will be driven by individual, corporate, and philanthropic investments from across the Kansas City region and beyond.

Thus far, more than 79 individuals and organizations have contributed $1,130,585 to extend the opportunities to more students throughout the region, making this a true community-based program. KC Scholars has 36 scholarships named for individuals, companies, and in honor of community members.

KC Scholars recently closed its second year of applications. In total, the three scholarship opportunities in 2018 received more than 2,000 applications, a 42 percent increase across all categories from 2017.

Beyond giving to the scholarship fund, community members continue to provide time to support the effort. KC Scholars has engaged a diverse set of 197 community members who have volunteered time to review each application. These reviewers are trained extensively and look at applications without names or addresses to ensure fairness.

This type of community engagement is at the heart of the program and demonstrates the commitment of our community to collectively invest in our future, with a goal of at minimum producing 8,000 educated and diverse employees by 2027.

KC Scholars awards will be announced on May 1.