February 25, 2016

Education pays dividends

By Bill Cirone

“An investment in knowledge,” Benjamin Franklin famously observed, “pays the best interest.”

Few would argue with this bit of wisdom from one of our nation’s most famous forefathers. But, to the concern of millions of young Americans and their families, that investment is becoming increasingly difficult to make.

In an article published earlier this year on MarketWatch, journalist Jillian Berman laid out some of the stark facts about the crushing college debt crisis facing American students and their families.

Approximately 70% of recent college graduates leave their universities not only with a diploma, but also with a significant debt burden. Government sources estimate total student loans to be approximately $1.2 trillion. Nearly 40 million Americans—about 1 in 8—struggle with managing some kind of student loan debt. These are staggering numbers.

There are several factors contributing to this mounting problem. Among them is the fact that states’ investments in higher education have been trending down, in relative terms, over the last several decades. While in California that trend has reversed over the last two years, funding is still below pre-recession levels. Consequently, colleges and universities have been forced to make up for those shortfalls by raising tuition on students.

Unfortunately, that increase in tuition has considerably outpaced the rise in household income. A recent article in Forbes noted that “since 1982 a typical family income increased by 147%, more than inflation but significantly behind the huge increase in college costs,” the authors note. Meanwhile, they observe, “the college education inflation rate has risen nearly 500%.”

Few would argue about life-changing impacts of continuing one’s education. But with the mounting difficulties of being able to afford that education, the importance of developing lifelong habits of fiscal responsibility is as great as ever.

That is where the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara, which has been working with local high school students and their families since 1962, comes in.

The Foundation is truly a local treasure. They consistently earn stellar 4-star ratings from Charity Navigator, a leading independent charity watchdog group that assesses American charitable organizations. For 12 of the last 14 years, the Foundation has scored in Charity Navigator’s 90th percentile and above. They proudly note that 100% of the monies they receive that is earmarked for scholarships go out as scholarships.

The Scholarship Foundation provides not only means and knowledge about financial options and higher education; it is also the embodiment of the financial stewardship they promote in the students and families they serve.

“We aim to inspire, encourage, and support Santa Barbara County students in their pursuit of college, graduate, and vocational school education, through financial aid advising and the granting of scholarships,” says Scholarship Foundation President and CEO Candace Winkler.

“In the U.S., a higher education has long been the key to the door of opportunity and financial sufficiency,” Winkler notes, “but rapidly increasing costs and the subsequent debt burden our students carry upon graduation is pushing back their horizons. The Scholarship Foundation believes that every student with the motivation to earn a higher degree should be given chance to do so.”

The Scholarship Foundation takes that principle to heart. Last academic year, they awarded over 2,900 scholarships to Santa Barbara County students, totaling over $8.7 million. Yet they take just as much pride in the 45,000 people they reached in their free individual financial aid advising sessions and other outreach events. “In so doing,” Winkler says, “we were able to help those students and families leverage over $40 million in financial aid from government, institutional, and private sources.”

“In Santa Barbara County, close to 20% of residents live in poverty, as compared to the national average of just below 15%. Furthermore, as our housing costs are some of the most expensive in the nation, so low and middle income families find it very challenging to pay college tuition,” Winkler notes. “That’s where we offer help, and the reward is tremendous. Research shows that individuals who obtain a college degree will be happier, healthier, and productive and engaged citizens.”

Indeed, their efforts have been having tremendous impacts for Santa Barbara County residents since the Scholarship Foundation’s inception 54 years ago. They know as well as anyone that helping young people invest in knowledge truly pays dividends.