With college tuition costs creeping up every year, one local company is responding in a big way.
Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative's Educational Foundation this year is giving away $720,000 in college scholarships to area high school seniors.
"It will be the largest distribution we've ever made," Member Relations Manager David Lambert said. "Last year we gave out 75 scholarships that maxed out at $6,000. This is a huge benefit to our members. There is no other organization in the area that does what we do."
The electric utility, which serves most of north Pasco, is a nonprofit cooperative that is owned by its members. The scholarship is available only to dependents of the co-op's 200,000 members.
"It's designed to help members who could not afford to pay for their kids to go to college," Lambert said. "You don't have to go to a four-year university. You could go to nursing school or to a technical school to learn a trade — as long as it's an accredited school in Florida."
Lambert said the foundation's board decided to increase the number of scholarships to 90 and the amount to $8,000. Recipients can collect $1,000 per semester for four years as long as they maintain a C average.
"It's a recognition that there's a greater need," Lambert said. "And it's because we want to train a quality workforce that will give back to the community."
Since its inception in 1997, the educational foundation has awarded 1,159 scholarships valued at up to $5.2 million.
"We've got about 360 kids in the program now," Lambert said.
Scott Mitchell, principal at Watergrass Elementary, and his wife have twin sons who attend Florida College in Temple Terrace and a daughter who is graduating high school this year. One of the boys earned a scholarship from the foundation, and Mitchell's daughter is applying for one.
"It's a real struggle to pay for three kids in college at the same time," Mitchell said. "We had done some planning and saving and had set aside some money. But the scholarship was a huge help."
The Pasco Education Foundation administered $520,000 in scholarship money last year. Executive Director Chip Wichmanowski said the numbers involved in Withlacoochee Electric's program are impressive.
"That's fantastic, and it's a great opportunity for students whose parents are members of the co-op," Wichmanowski said. He speaks from firsthand experience — one of his children received a college scholarship from the co-op a few years ago.
The deadline to apply is March 7. For information go to www.wrec.net.