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Giving Back: Reaching higher in post-secondary attainment is essential for Manatee County’s future

Susie Bowie is the executive director of the Manatee Community Foundation.
Susie Bowie is the executive director of the Manatee Community Foundation.

By 2025, 60 percent of jobs in our state will require a degree or other post-secondary credential.

In Manatee County today, less than half of our adult population would make the cut. What will our community look like if we don’t tackle this now? It’s a scary proposition for so many reasons.

Local business leaders, educational institutions, philanthropies and nonprofits are combining their resources, good thinking and energy to do something, but they are asking a different question: What can we accomplish together?

As a member of the Florida College Access Network, the Manatee Community Foundation is joined with colleagues that share data, strategies that achieve results and metrics to help us track to success.

We are calling our effort REACH Manatee. The goal is to ensure that more adults have a degree, industry-recognized certification or licensure. No single organization or individual owns it; we all own it together. Our call to each citizen is to own it with us.

Though a number of factors can increase post-secondary attainment within communities, a few key areas can have enormous impact here in Manatee.

Increasing FAFSA completion rates

Every year, a shocking amount of free federal aid for students to pursue college is left on the table.


The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is a time-consuming and complicated form, and frankly, an enormous barrier for many low-income students.

UnidosNow, which is a charitable organization dedicated to elevating the quality of life of the growing Hispanic/Latino community, Manatee County Schools and other institutions have been offering evening programs to provide FAFSA assistance to families.

They find confidential, one on one support to navigate and complete the form in a friendly, bilingual atmosphere.

Reaching parents and students early

The younger we can reach students and their parents with the varied opportunities for post-secondary education, the better.

As early as elementary or middle school years, students can give up their educational dreams when parents believe financial constraints will be too great to overcome.

Parents may not realize that aid is available to help them go back to school, obtain a credential and change the future for themselves and for their children through their example.

At Manatee Community Foundation, we are talking to more donors who are finding their calling in philanthropy by funding scholarships for adult learners.

They are giving new possibilities to single mothers, young parents, middle aged workers, and others who struggle to make living wages to support their families.

Focus on the trades

Jobs in trades are in high demand in our local workforce, and many have excellent wages. We are not doing enough to provide information about this option to young people.

Some students receive a “college or nothing message” from early years forward. Parents in low-income households may not realize how accessible a career in the trades can be for them. Manatee Technical College is the envy of many communities.

Its leadership, faculty, state of the art facility and certifications that offer immediate employment after completion are invaluable.

A true model of collaboration

REACH Manatee’s list of partners crosses sectors but has one unified voice. It includes The School District of Manatee, Manatee Community Foundation, United Way Suncoast, Career Edge, CareerSource Suncoast, Manatee Education Foundation, Manatee Technical College, University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, New College, State College of Florida, the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corporation, Take Stock in Children of Manatee, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Manatee County, and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

UnidosNow first brought the need for a local College Access Network to Manatee County. Executive director Luz Corcuera quickly earned the respect of community and foundation leaders, donors and program staff with her sincere, no-nonsense approach.

Her passion and commitment for doing the best for our students convinced all that if we were not part of this state and nationwide effort, our community would suffer. UnidsoNow is the “backbone” organization for REACH Manatee, coordinating the efforts of the larger group.

A grant from the Manatee Matches Giving Circle of Manatee Community Foundation, matched by one of the first grants ever to be awarded from the newly formed Helming & Knies Family Foundation, will underwrite a critical staff resource at UnidosNow for the next year.

Everyone in Manatee County deserves the opportunities to grow and reach their highest potential. By nurturing this ideal, we remain attractive to new businesses and industry, to families and to retirees who live and give in our community. We are also combatting the expensive realities of poverty.

We know that this effort is much bigger than any one of us alone. With so many positive assets here in Manatee County and our commitment to working together, we are taking the “failure is not an option” approach.

We hope you’ll join us.

Susie Bowie is the executive director of the Manatee Community Foundation, a charitable foundation that strengthens the community through philanthropy, education and service — for now and for the future. Email: Phone: 941-747-7765.