Nearly 40 McLennan County college students received $5,000 scholarships Tuesday night from the Waco Foundation’s MAC College Money Program for upperclassmen, but the surprise was not the number of qualifying students: More than a quarter were fresh high school graduates.

Thanks in part to increased enrollment in dual credit and early college access programs, 11 students winning scholarships meant to help them in their junior and senior years of college had earned their high school diplomas only two months ago, a notable uptick from past years.

“It jumped significantly this year,” Waco Foundation spokeswoman Natalie Kelinske said. “Many are first generation college students, and this helps them graduate quicker and with less out-of-pocket expense.”

The foundation awarded 37 $5,000 scholarships and three full-tuition Baylor scholarships Tuesday in a ceremony at McLennan Community College’s Conference Center.

Malcolm and Mary Ruth Duncan created the scholarship program in 1995, intending it as a way for McLennan County students midway through their college years to secure funding to cover some of their costs.

For La Vega High School graduate Keren Guardarrama, one of those winning a $5,000 scholarship, it is an answer to hard work and prayer. She enrolled in La Vega’s Early College High School program, finishing an associate’s degree at the same time as her high school diploma. In fact, the 18-year-old received her associate’s degree two days before her La Vega graduation in May.

“I knew with God’s grace I would graduate with an associate’s degree and avoid that financial stress the first two years,” Guardarrama said.

Her next two years will involve studies in early childhood education, taking Tarleton State University classes at MCC’s University Center on her way to a career as kindergarten or prekindergarten teacher. Guardarrama, the oldest of three children, is the first in her family to attend college.

To qualify for a MAC scholarship, students must complete 60 credit hours, the rough equivalence of two years of college, with a minimum grade point average of 3.0. Students also have to apply during their senior year of high school. In the process, some find they qualify for federal Pell grants that help with their expenses as they work on their first 60 credit hours.

Recent growth in dual credit classes, where Texas high school students can take community college classes for college and high school credit, mean more high school students are graduating with an associate’s degree or its equivalence, at the same time they finish high school. That is an encouraging sign to MAC organizers, who see it as more students finding a way to make college affordable, Kelinske said.

Many winning a scholarship finish their degrees at Baylor University, Texas State Technical College and, through McLennan Community College’s University Center, Texas Tech University and Tarleton State University. Past winners also have used their scholarships at the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, the University of North Texas, Texas State University and the University of Texas at Arlington, Kelinske said.

In addition to the $5,000 scholarships, Baylor provides full-tuition scholarships, valued at about $45,000 per year, for the three students transferring from MCC to Baylor with the highest GPA.

West High School graduate Sydney Patterson, 18, is one of this year’s Baylor scholarship winners and had paid extra on her cellphone plan last month in case she got news of the scholarship during a graduation trip. It paid off June 7 when she got the call.

“I burst into tears,” she remembered. Good news? “Definitely,” she said.

Since West High School does not offer as many dual credit classes as other McLennan County schools, Patterson got her 60 college hours the hard way: summer classes at MCC and juggling high school and college classes during the school year.

“I had to go through a lot of hoops and rings to get my plan approved,” she said.

By school year’s end, Patterson had a 4.1 GPA in high school and a 3.75 GPA for her college classes. The daughter of Jess Patterson and Kristi and Todd Brewer, she will start her Baylor classes in the fall as a junior and plans to study political science with a possible minor in business administration. She is the first in her family to attend college.

In its 24 years, the MAC Program has awarded 949 scholarships totaling almost $9.5 million. Joining the Duncans in funding the program are the Waco Foundation, H-E-B, Clifton and Betsy Robinson, Baylor University, the Bernard & Audre Rapoport Foundation, SpaceX and others.

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