Misty Davis won two scholarships right out of high school to attend the college of her choice, but she didn't go because her mother was sick.
Now, at 30, she's getting a second chance, thanks to a scholarship provided by Anne Arundel Community College.
"It's like starting all over," she said.
The Philip E. and Carole R. Ratcliffe Foundation Entrepreneurial Studies Scholarship, which was started in 2003, pays the full cost of tuition and books for people who own or aspire to own their a business. It will pay as much as $10,000 toward a degree or just to take classes.
"It's one of the best scholarships I ever heard of because you are able to take whatever class you want, any class they have available, credit or noncredit," said Davis, who lives in Severna Park and wants to open an interior-decorating business.
She's taking two classes this semester - English and a small-business studies class - while she holds down a full-time job in an accounting office and raises her 4-year-old son.
She also sells real estate, but she's cutting back so she can focus on school, she said. She wants to earn a degree before she starts her business.
"You need credibility," she said. "I know that it's a must in order for me to reach my career goals. I need to have some kind of educational background."
In the past couple of years, AACC has increased its efforts to educate and encourage entrepreneurs, said Carlene Cassidy, director of the college's Entrepreneurial Studies Institute.
According to the Small Business Association, Cassidy said, fewer than 40 percent of new businesses survive more than five years, and a major factor is lack of business knowledge.
"We look at it and say, `What are some of the things we can do to fill those gaps?'" Cassidy said.
One thing the college has done is create the ESI, now in its second year, which has a resource lab and student business incubator. The institute, on the Arnold campus, is set up with cubicles and a meeting room, Cassidy said.
Navigating the system
As director of the ESI, Cassidy also oversees credit and noncredit courses related to entrepreneurship, and helps students create a course map that will prepare them to start their own business.
"In some ways it's putting a fresh label on something, and in some ways it's just been a really new idea," she said. "Now when students have a question about it, it's really easy for our advising office to say, `Oh, yeah, we have a program on entrepreneurship now.' This is just a natural extension of the programs this college has already had in place."
The scholarship is an important component of the ESI.
The Ratcliffes, local business people, are donating $1 million over 10 years for the program, Cassidy said. Of the $100,000 donated each year, $80,000 goes toward scholarships, and the rest will be set aside in an endowment, she said.
Winning applicants must take their classes at AACC, and must be either current or aspiring business owners.
Applicants must have an idea of the business they want to pursue, but don't need a fully realized business plan, Cassidy said. However, the application requires them to answer eight questions related to their goals and how they hope to achieve them.
"It's almost like they're selling themselves and saying, `These are the things I have done and the vision of where I want to go,'" Cassidy said.
The applications are reviewed by a committee of three business people and two academics, she said.
"I will say they really look at it like they're investing in a prospective business owner," she said.
In its first year, more than 100 students applied and 33 scholarships were awarded, for a total of $76,000. "We didn't look at it and say, `Let's pick up one more,'" she said.
A broad spectrum
Winners include full-time and part-time students, some who already own businesses and others who are just starting out, she said. No minimum grades are needed to win the scholarship, but students must maintain a 2.5 grade-point average to keep it.
One scholarship winner was Joseph Griffin, 25, who joined the military out of high school and is now completing his associate's degree at AACC. The scholarship paid for about $2,000 in tuition and expenses for the spring semester, he said.
Griffin, who lives at Fort Meade, will attend Howard University in the fall to work toward a bachelor's degree in accounting, he said, but he'll continue using the scholarship to take noncredit classes at AACC, such as those focused on real estate and small-business management.
He plans to start a business helping veterans and low-income families buy homes.
"This scholarship has given me a great opportunity," he said. "I'm surprised that more people don't apply for this scholarship."