Sumter alum wants parents, students to understand 'full rides are possible'

BY BRUCE MILLS
bruce@theitem.com
Posted 10/5/18

Want a solution to rising college costs? Sumter native Melinda Mihlbauer probably has an answer.

A career high school guidance counselor during the day at Woodland High School in Dorchester County School District 4, Mihlbauer is sometimes …

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Sumter alum wants parents, students to understand 'full rides are possible'

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Want a solution to rising college costs? Sumter native Melinda Mihlbauer probably has an answer.

A career high school guidance counselor during the day at Woodland High School in Dorchester County School District 4, Mihlbauer is sometimes referred to as the "Scholarship Lady" because of her side venture.

This week, she sat down to discuss her PACE Scholarship Academy, which allows her to travel the state, North Carolina and other neighboring states to help students - and their parents - navigate the wide landscape of college scholarship opportunities.

A 1993 graduate of Sumter High School, Mihlbauer still lives in Sumter and commutes daily to Woodland near St. George in upper Dorchester County.

Her passion is helping students earn college scholarships, and her slogan is "Full rides are possible," she said.

Her oldest daughter, Chanelle Baker, a 2011 graduate of Sumter High, was "a true test it can be done," she said.

Baker finished ranked No. 28 in her class but earned 63 scholarships - 57 that she could use - in a full ride to Francis Marion University in Florence. That was more scholarships earned than the class valedictorian that year, Mihlbauer said.

In 2014, Mihlbauer started PACE, which stands for Professional Assistance for College-Prep Excellence, and offers workshops, "boot camps," fairs and other events to help students and their families be successful in earning college scholarships.

The biggest misconception out there among students and their parents is that scholarship money is based on family income.

Mihlbauer said college scholarships are ripe for well-rounded students who volunteer in their communities and are involved in multiple clubs and organizations in and out of school. On those scholarship applications, officials are looking for leadership growth in students - like moving from a club member to a club treasurer, according to Mihlbauer.

She said it's also important these days for students and parents to change their mindset and not wait to apply for college scholarships until their junior and senior year in high school. In her work, she tries to motivate middle schoolers and incoming high school freshmen to apply for available college scholarships.

The proof her business is working is in the numbers: To date, 196 students have received full rides through her PACE program, she said. More than 1,000 students have earned partial scholarships.

In her business, all proceeds for scholarship book sales and "boot camps" goes back into administering scholarship fairs and other free events.

She had her first scholarship fair in February at Sumter High.

The purpose of the fairs is to allow parents and students the opportunity to meet with various organizations face to face to discover what it takes to earn particular scholarships, Mihlbauer said.

She already has three fairs scheduled for this school year: one at Woodland High in Dorchester County, another at Sumter High on Feb. 2 and a third at Greenville's TD Convention Center.

She said a growing number of scholarships now are available to two-year colleges, though, traditionally, opportunities have been weighted toward four-year schools.

Parental involvement is critical in her work, she said, and Mihlbauer requires a parent or adult attend many of her programs with youth.

Many scholarship applications now don't ask for grade-point average (GPA) or class rank, either, which she said is another misconception out there. With PACE, Mihlbauer said she targets all students but especially those middle, college-preparatory level students.

PACE has taken off in popularity since she developed a social media presence on Facebook and Instagram in 2016, she said.

"Full rides are possible, but I don't sugar-coat it," Mihlbauer said. "It's not easy."

She said parents understand the importance of college scholarships, though students often don't - at least not right away.

Drawing from her own personal experience with her oldest child, Mihlbauer said, at times her daughter would be mad with her about all the applications.

"But, in the end, she appreciates it now," she said, "because she's debt free."