Kansas company's rare tuition scholarship program was 'life-changing for me'
If you work at Bob Cutler’s company, chances are good that he is paying for the education of someone related to you.
Maybe your niece or grandson. Maybe your own child — and not just one who’s off to college.
The unusual scholarship program at C3, a Leawood marketing agency, also doles out tuition grants to youngsters at private K-12 schools.
Twelve students this fall are receiving a total of $113,597 in scholarships given by the company, which employs 48.
Because of the wide-open eligibility rules, C3 creative director Bob Houston counted his 17 nieces and nephews as qualifiers. One of them received a $10,000 prize, the typical award:
Congratulations, nephew Tyler Feeken.
“I see myself as sort of a favorite uncle,” says Houston. “This put me up a notch.”
Nothing prevents companies from making scholarship programs eligible to extended family members of employees.
Maybe now is the time to reach out. After all, most offspring of boomers already are schooled. For today’s college-bound, especially those in single-parent households, the more relatives tied to businesses giving out scholarships, the better.
Yet the practice of awarding grandchildren, nieces and nephews is rare around Kansas City. The Greater Kansas City Community Foundation — a nonprofit overseeing more than 230 scholarships funds for employers and individuals — knows of no other company with eligibility and schooling options as broad as C3’s.
While a few businesses working with the foundation offer college grants to students outside an employee’s immediate family, they don’t also cover K-12 tuition.
“It is unique,” said Brandi Riggs, president of the local chapter of the Society of Human Resource Managers.
For his part, Liberty University sophomore Feeken rates C3’s program fantastic.
“More companies should be as generous,” Feeken, 20, told The Star in a phone call from the Lynchburg, Va., campus.
“A lot of scholarships have an agenda,” he said. “Some companies want only to help people who are close insiders. Or they’re looking for kids who later would circle back and work for the company. Or you have to be this major or that major — or go only to this college, even.”
C3 founder Cutler says he wants to provide as many scholarships as a business employing four dozen can give under tax law.
One Internal Revenue Service formula allows employers to award tuition grants to no more than 10 percent of workplace-related students. So if 50 children of workers fall into qualifying categories to receive an award, only five scholarships can be given. The federal limit is meant to prevent huge corporate write-offs.
To boost the number of eligible students, C3 managers ask their workers yearly to tally up not just their own children going to school, but also a “niece, nephew or grandchild of a current regular C3 employee who has been employed...for at least one year,” according to the language of the C3 Scholarship Fund.
The company’s counting method upped C3’s pool of eligible students, including K-12 pupils at private schools, to 123. Ten percent of that meant 12 scholarships for this academic year.
Cutler only wishes more grandchildren could be eligible. But most of C3’s payroll of artists, idea people and administrators are younger than 45.
What motivates you
In its 30 years of marketing toys and family packages for hospitality chains — the breakout being Sonic Drive-Ins, gaining national stature in the 1990s — C3 has provided “lucky me, a C student, with an A lifestyle,” said Cutler.
“I’m just a steward of the impact and success that 48 people who make this company have made,” he said. “I have plenty of resources. Why would I want to take away from someone else?”
The idea hit Cutler in 2013.
One night he noticed Jennifer Loper working late in her office. He asked Loper, who heads accounts management: “Why do you work so hard?”
She wasn’t sure how to answer. Because you pay me? Because I have responsibilities?
“What I’m asking is ‘What motivates you to work as hard as you do?’” Cutler pressed: “What are the important things in your life that bring you here every day?”
Loper replied: “I want to send my kids to Rockhurst High School.”
Recalling this recently in Cutler’s office, Loper started to cry.
“Uh-oh, tissue talk,” said Cutler, placing on his desk a roll of toilet paper from a drawer.
“He prefers it to Kleenex,” an associate said.
Loper continued: Shortly after leaving the office that night in 2013, she got a phone call from Cutler, who was lounging on his patio. He’d cover $10,000 of her oldest son’s high school tuition, Cutler said. (Rockhurst’s tuition for the 2017-18 academic year is $12,550.)
The next morning he asked C3’s human resources director to look into building a scholarship fund to help as many staffers’ loved ones as government allows.
“It was life-changing for me,” Loper said. “I’ve never heard of a benefit program like this.”
In recent years sons Billy and Patrick Loper each have received $10,000 in annual tuition assistance, with Billy now at Kansas State University and Patrick at Rockurst High.
Anyone can do it
The Greater KC Community Foundation helps C3 and other employers manage their scholarship funds for a monthly fee. The foundation forms committees to select the winners and invests company contributions to help funds grow.
For businesses giving scholarships, extending eligibility to employees’ nieces, nephews and grandchildren — or even younger siblings — would take a simple change in the criteria language. No matter how many workplace relatives qualify, the company would still be limited to the IRS’ 10 percent cap on awards.
“I think people would really like it,” said Brenda Chumley, a senior vice president at the foundation.
But it’s up to benefactors to commit the money.
In the last three years, the fund at C3 has paid out more than $250,000 in awards, making it among the most generous of the scholarship programs governed by the community foundation. Among 234 funds, the average giving in calendar year 2016 was $11,000 per year, according to the foundation, and the average recipient was awarded $1,900.
Cutler has come to know the talents and dreams of every student C3 has awarded.
Gifts to Feeken, the creative director’s nephew, allowed him as college freshman last year to pursue ministry studies. He spent the summer in Guatemala, teaching English and feeling reassured he’s on the right path.
“When a company supports you like this, it takes a lot of fear and uncertainty out of the college experience,” Feeken said. “And mind you, these are people I’d never met before, not in my entire life.”