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Updated: June 24, 2024 Focus on Education & Training

Making the grade: Small but mighty foundation opens college doors for growing number of Mainers

Photo / Jim Neuger Beverly Worthington, right, co-founder of the Worthington Scholarship Foundation in Rockland, works closely with her daughter, Julie Bourgoin, the organization’s president.

As the only woman in her flight-school class decades ago in Texas, Beverly Worthington knew there was no room for error.

“When I was getting my ratings for flying, I had to be better than the men, because they were going to flunk me every time if they could,” she says. She financed her education from her earnings as a hair-salon business owner while starting and raising a family.

Today, the 77-year-old retired pilot and aviation entrepreneur chairs the board and serves as treasurer of the Worthington Scholarship Foundation that she and her late husband, David Worthington, founded in Rockland near their summer residence in Spruce Head.

The couple began awarding scholarships to Maine high school graduates in 2010 via the Maine Community Foundation, then started their own foundation in 2017. The idea was to help Mainers from low- and middle-income families afford college, free of the obstacles the couple overcame to finance their own education.

To date, the Worthingtons have committed more than $42 million for 2,489 students, including close to $14.5 million this year for 766 scholarships. If pending applications are approved, that number may reach 800.

“We see the potential in all Maine students who aspire for success through higher education,” says Julie Bourgoin, who leads a six-person staff at the foundation established by her mother and stepfather. She joined the organization in 2021 after 30 years in hospital, education and social services fundraising and became president in early 2023.

“Our awarded scholars are not only high achievers, but also those whom others may often overlook.”

From Texas to Maine

David Worthington’s ties to Maine go back to his post high-school years, when his family moved from Massachusetts to the Knox County town of Appleton to raise chinchillas. He later bought a house in Spruce Head.

The Worthingtons met 25 years ago outside an art museum in Houston, when David waited with Beverly for 90 minutes for a ride from AAA after her car broke down, tossing his business card into the open window as she departed.

A lunch date led to a 23-year marriage. Neither had an easy time attaining their college degrees.

Forced to interrupt his undergraduate studies at Marietta College in Ohio because he ran out of money, David spent three years in the Army before returning to school on the G.I. Bill to earn a geology degree.

He pursued graduate studies under a Texaco fellowship at the University of Utah and Virginia Tech, earning a master’s in geophysics and juggling a career in the oil industry with his work as a volunteer, board member and philanthropy. He died in Feburary, at age 82.

Beverly Worthington also had a delayed route to college, first at Lee College in Baytown, a coastal suburb of Houston, and then flight school at Houston’s Hobby Airport. Determined to look like a pilot long before she became one, she donned wide slacks and broad jackets over buttoned-up shirts to dress the part.

“There weren’t any books to guide you back then, but you knew the way you dressed translated into what kind of salary you were going to get,” she says.

80% graduation rate

Bothered by the state’s declining number of high school graduates and college enrollees, the Worthingtons awarded $66,000 to nine graduates of Rockland High School in 2010, giving a preference to Pell Grant-eligible students pursuing four-year degrees in science or math.

At that time, eligible recipients could choose any college in the U.S. to study science or math.

“We believed it was just a dream: What if we could give every student who graduates from every high school in Maine a scholarship, and how many would that even be?” Beverly recalls.

“Could we do it, and could we be efficient in helping students stay in school? The worst thing we could do is encourage a kid of limited means to start college if they couldn’t finish.”

Every year since, they have increased the number of scholarships awarded and dollar amount.

The foundation focuses solely on Maine, working with 20 partners from two-year community colleges to private institutions including Colby, Bates and Bowdoin, where tuition is $60,000-plus.

The effort is not just luring high school grads to pursue higher education in their home state but also to complete a degree.

That’s reflected in an 80% average graduation rate for scholars who began college between 2010 and 2017, according to Bourgoin. That’s well above the 61% average statewide completion rate documented by Educate Maine in its latest indicators report.

“Maine students are entering college at lower rates than before the pandemic,” says Jason Judd, Educate Maine’s executive director. “Many students are entering the workforce directly after high school due to the availability of jobs locally and the ability to make additional income.”

Citing a prediction that 72% of jobs in the U.S. in 2030 will require education or training beyond high school, Judd commends the Worthington Foundation for helping students enroll, persist and graduate from postsecondary programs. He’s also a fan of the Portland-based Mitchell Foundation, which offers similar student supports beyond financial.

“By completing their degree program, students are on a path to make significantly higher lifetime earnings,” he says.

Making a difference

Worthington scholarships are awarded based on merit and financial need to high school graduates who enroll in one of the program’s partner colleges or universities.

For students attending a four-year college or university, scholarships can be up to $20,000, or $2,500 per semester. For community college, scholarships are $1,500 per semester for four semesters, assuming two years to get an associate degree; scholars that continue at a four-year college are then eligible for four more semesters at the $2,500 rate.

To remain eligible for funding during their studies, scholars are required to earn a grade point average of 2.0 or better and 12 credits per semester. As of this year, the foundation is offering scholarships to graduates of all 134 public high schools in Maine.

“Our purpose in giving financial help is so that students can avoid working multiple jobs to support themselves through college and are able to focus on learning and completing college in a as timely manner,” Bourgoin says.

“Some do have to work multiple jobs, but the financial help may keep them from having to drop out.”

Scholarships are just as important for those studying at community colleges, where tuition is free for certain classes of high school graduates, who often struggle to pay room and board and other expenses, according to Mercedes Pour, of the Maine Community College System.

She says there will be 257 Worthington scholars at six of the seven community colleges this coming year, up from 137 last year.

“So much of life gets in the way for our students,” she says. “For some, getting a flat tire means not only not going to class, but they don’t have the money to fix that tire. It’s great to see the Worthington Foundation being so generous.”

But the foundation is not just focused on finances, it also has contacts at each campus to keep tabs on students’ progress and provide support from tutoring to transportation. Even when students are failing, “we don’t just abandon them,” Bourgoin says. “We help them get back on track.”

The fund is endowed through 2050. Within the next 10 years. the board will decide whether to discontinue the fund after that, or for others to raise funds to keep the effort going. Longer term, the hope is that the Worthington business model will be replicated in other states.

Pomp and circumstance

Graduation season is always meaningful for Beverly Worthington, who was honored by Thomas College this May with an honorary doctorate of humane letters, as was her late husband posthumously.

At the ceremony, she received a single red rose from each of five graduating Worthington scholars. They included Shawn Von Oesen, a communications major who completed his degree in three years and will return to the Waterville school this fall for his Master’s degree, using a portion of his $12,000 Worthington Scholarship for graduate school.

“For me it made the difference between going to the college that was cheapest and being able to choose Thomas, which felt like home,” the 21-year-old from Unity says.

On Maine’s midcoast, Anna Coleman — who financed her English studies at Husson University in Bangor via a $16,000 Worthington Scholarship, along with other scholarships and loans — is making the most of a career she embarked on while still in school.

In Belfast at the Waldo County YMCA , the 22-year-old from Swanville is honing her skills in writing, photography and storytelling as the organization’s social media manager.

Not yet sure where she wants to be in 10 years, she says, “I’d like to be working somewhere that I can express my creativity — in art and writing — while helping and connecting with others. That may be something to what I do now with social media marketing, or maybe more of community outreach, or something else.”

Photo / Courtesy, Anna Coleman
Worthington scholar Anna Coleman was one of five valedictorians in Husson University’s 2024 graduating class.

Like a proud parent or grandparent, Beverly Worthington celebrates the accomplishments of the thousands of Worthington scholars she and her late husband have supported. While she’s not aware of any female graduates that have gone into aviation, she’s impressed that many are pursuing technology fields, “where the barriers seem to be gone.”

“They’ve all been through hard times,” she adds, “but they’re determined to go out and get those jobs that are waiting for them, and to follow their dreams.”

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