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Madison. For Keeps?

One family’s story shows how the pandemic threatens the academic opportunities of JMU students

Cari and Scott Bennett’s daughers: Hannah, Megan (’20), Madison.

Cari and Scott Bennett’s daughters: Hannah, Megan (’20), Madison.
Photo courtesy of Cari Bennett

For Cari and Scott Bennett, having three daughters in college at the same time was never going to be easy. Without college degrees themselves, Cari and Scott were proud of their daughters’ dedication to academics – each was a Governor’s School participant from James Wood High School – and dedicated to giving them a chance at higher education.

It helped when Megan, the oldest, toured JMU and fell in love with the campus. Younger sisters Madison and Hannah followed, which meant in-state tuition at one of Virginia’s less expensive schools. Still, as Hannah was preparing to enter JMU last fall, loan debt for the first two was mounting.

“I freaked out,” Cari remembers. “I said, ‘I am not going to be that parent who gives our children thousands of dollars in student loans that they have to pay on top of trying to live as a young adult.’”  So Cari and Scott immediately sold their home in Winchester and downsized to a cozy residence in rural Fort Valley.  With their lowered expenses, Scott’s corporate job and consistent overtime would cover the essential bills. And Cari, a self-employed craft show vendor for 15 years, would cover tuition with her income. 

It worked. “We're proud to say over the last year and a half, we have not taken any loans. We have fully cash flowed all three kids in college,” she says.

All seemed to be going according to plan: All three students were accepted into JMU’s Honors College. Megan, a senior with a sociology and Spanish double major, spent the fall semester focused on her post-graduate job search and will start with a Reston, Va., firm in June. Madison, a sophomore, focuses on coding in her computer science major. Hannah, a freshman majoring in international business, became a proud member of the Marching Royal Dukes.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Overnight Scott’s travel (and overtime pay) ceased.  Canceled craft shows meant Cari’s income dropped to zero.  Now, with tuition bills for Madison and Hannah on the horizon, the family’s options are few.

A coming wave of financial need

The Bennetts’ story is all too familiar for Brad Barnett, JMU’s director of financial aid. Stories of financial shock accompany emergency aid appeals that are starting to stack up. More than 140 have arrived as of last week, far beyond any normal year. Barnett compares it to the Great Recession when hundreds of students were at risk of having to drop out. Barnett says the need he witnessed then, while substantial, can’t hold a candle to what’s coming.

“What we're seeing now with the unemployment data, current statistics and where things are projected to go … this is going to make the Great Recession look like a small bump in the road,” Barnett says. “We're already starting to see that with the letters and the questions.” And, he adds, the new level of need will likely last for at least two academic years.

Barnett and his staff will examine each appeal.  “We do a pretty deep dive into the family’s finances to see exactly what they do need.” Barnett said. “Our goal is to give awards to people who financially were able to afford JMU until the financial emergency happened. We just want to keep them at JMU this year while the situation resolves itself.”

A solution from JMU donors

Barnett remembers how JMU alumni and donors rallied in 2009-10 for the Madison for Keeps campaign, and that memory gives him hope.  Private gifts from more than 3,800 JMU donors generated funds that saved the academic lives of 108 students that year.

On May 4, JMU brought back Madison for Keeps. And with the help of some of JMU’s most devoted donors and friends, the university launched a one-month drive to raise $500,000 for Madison for Keeps emergency student scholarships.  That’s estimated to be enough to keep at least 100 Dukes in school this fall.

Please consider helping students who need emergency scholarships due to COVID-19: gifts to Madison for Keeps help Dukes stay Dukes.

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Madison for Keeps provides hope

For Cari and Scott, a Madison for Keeps emergency scholarship could perfectly fit their needs for Madison and Hannah. “I do still work every day at building my inventory,” Cari says. “I've got literally thousands of items ready to sell as soon as the government lifts [the stay-at-home orders] and I'm ready and willing to go back to work at a moment's notice.”

Until then, though, the Bennetts, like so many other families, will be watching for the results of their financial aid appeal process – and hoping that JMU alumni and friends can keep today’s Dukes in school just as they did 11 years ago during the Great Recession.

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Published: Monday, May 4, 2020

Last Updated: Wednesday, March 1, 2023

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