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College Affordability: A Conversation With CEO Robert C. Ballard

By Pam Carlson

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

In July 2019 Scholarship America president and CEO Robert C. Ballard discussed college affordability, the importance of the FAFSA (now open for applications) and why students should not give up on their college dreams with Sherman Whitman, host of Boston area WPKZ Radio’s The K-Zone.

Sherman WhitmanSherman Whitman: We’re going to take up a very serious subject today: the never-ending cost of college. People dream about being a doctor, a lawyer – but the cost of college leaves many of those dreams shattered. Is there money to be found to help offset the expense of going to college? Believe it or not, the answer is “yes.” And we’re pleased to be joined by someone who can help us out. Bob Ballard is the president and CEO of Scholarship America.

Bob Ballard: Thank you very much for the opportunity. Scholarship America began not too far from where you’re broadcasting — we started in 1958 in Fall River, Massachusetts. A gentleman by the name of Dr. Irving Fradkin was a practicing optometrist at the time. He ran for school board in 1957 on a platform of creating a community scholarship program. Unfortunately, he lost that election, but he continued with the idea. He began a community-wide door-to-door campaign asking for a dollar at a time. That campaign raised $4,000 and sent 25 Fall River High School graduates to college in 1958. A single man with a single idea created what Scholarship America is today.

Sherman Whitman: And today how many people has Scholarship America helped?

Bob Ballard: A total of 2.5 million students have received funding from or through us, totaling $4.2 billion dollars over that 60 year history.

Sherman Whitman: You may recall seeing TV announcements where they say college is America’s best friend. Can we still say that today? That college is America’s best friend?

Scholarship America Board Member Bob BallardBob Ballard: The answer, very positively, is yes. It always has been, and I think always will be, the door to opportunity. It’s the great equalizer and allows people to step up and step out of their circumstances. It’s a way to a better life not only for the individual but for their family, the community and the country at large.

That’s what Scholarship America focuses on. Even today when you hear about people going to college, many times they might be the first person from their family to do so. That student is seen as the light, that ray of hope, for the family. Going to college is the opportunity for a better way of life.

Sherman Whitman: When it comes to scholarships and grants, are there best practices or is it just simply knocking on doors?

Bob Ballard: There are resources that can help. One of the most important steps anyone can take is to complete the form that allows them to compete for and be considered for federal aid. That is the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA). It basically opens the door for something like a Pell Grant or a work study grant. The most dollars available to students today come from the federal government, but you have to fill out the FAFSA to be eligible for that type of aid. That would be the place to start.

Sherman Whitman: When do you start to search for scholarships? Does it happen during junior year of high school or does it begin during senior year?

Bob Ballard: Junior year is not a bad time to start looking, but the critical point comes in October of your senior year. That’s the earliest you can file the FAFSA. That’s actually earlier than it used to be, which is an advantage for students because it allows them to get information about financing and types of aid earlier in their decision process. So basically fall of senior year is the critical point.

For scholarships, there are search engines that can help. On ScholarshipAmerica.org you can see the types of scholarships out there. Private scholarships are the ones we primarily focus on and they are for all types of students, all types of individuals, from all walks of life. It’s just a matter of looking and hopefully connecting with those scholarship opportunities. That’s the critical part.

Sherman Whitman: You mentioned this process can be complicated. Why and how did this process become so complicated for people?

Bob Ballard: Each Congress and each legislature decides how they are going to support and fund education. They add new requirements, and over time it becomes difficult to sort out. There’s also a time frame, and a requirement to have certain things completed at certain times, such as taking the SAT and ACT tests. Those test scores are critical pieces of information for colleges and universities to make admission decisions and are the basis for merit-based scholarships. So that is something that you need to plan for.

The types of courses you take in high school are also important as you think about what career you want to have after high school. Whether you want to go to a two-year school, or go into a trade or an occupation with certification, all of those things require some level of planning. The complicated aspect is if you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s hard to figure it out. The best thing to do is ask for help because help is available.

Tony Gannon: Bob, I’m Tony Gannon and I’m sitting in today with Sherman. I’ve heard all about FAFSA because the guidance department at our high school has a meeting with the parents. If it wasn’t for that, a lot of parents wouldn’t know.

Bob Ballard: Guidance counselors play a critical role. They’re a group of professionals that should be admired and supported. One of the setbacks is that the number of students per counselor is almost 500 to 1. It’s just overwhelming. But clearly that is a place to go to get started.

Sherman Whitman: Is the FAFSA something that people need to apply for every year?

Bob Ballard: Yes. Every October 1 you should go through and complete the FAFSA, because there is a renewal aspect to the Pell Grant and some of the other grants. From a private scholarship perspective, it really depends on the scholarships. There are many, many types with many, many requirements. Some do a renewal just based on confirmation that you’re making satisfactory progress. Others require more. It’s something that you do need to look at once a year.

Sherman Whitman: We mentioned the fact that a high school guidance counselor has a lot of work to do. Are high schools doing enough to help students and their parents in knowing about what scholarships and grants are out there?

Bob Ballard: We all want the same thing and that’s for students to be successful and pursue whatever path they choose. I think they’re doing everything they can. The question is what type of additional support can we provide to them? And that’s where I think business, the state government or the local community can do more. The reason that Dr. Fradkin did what he did in 1958 is because he decided that, in Fall River, there needed to be more done to help students get to college. And I think that’s what’s needed even more today.

A lot of scholarship dollars are going toward tuition and fees. But there are more costs – transportation, food, basic daily living. Any dollar that you can gain goes a long way and every little bit helps.

Sherman Whitman: When you talk about the cost of college, I’m reminded: when I was attending college 45 years ago, I went to a state school in Michigan and took 15 credits, what was seen as a full load. It was less than $270 for the semester. I’m talking less than $18 per credit hour for tuition. Those days are long gone.

Bob Ballard: They are absolutely. I attended college about the same time and had a similar experience. And over and above that I was fortunate to have received the Navy ROTC scholarship. Not everyone is as fortunate. That’s something I think about as we’re trying to help students. There are opportunities out there, but we need to help students be aware of them.

Sherman Whitman: We’re living in a day and age where the talk in Washington is about cutting back on funding for education. Are there concerns about where those discussions are going?


Bob Ballard:
I think there’s a great deal of concern. In the President’s budget there were significant cuts to education — specifically to programs that help the type of students we’re talking about. The Pell Grant is effectively losing ground because it hasn’t had a funding increase to keep pace. There are also other programs that are being eliminated or reduced. We’re working with our office in Washington D.C. to make our voice heard along with others who have an interest in trying to support students.

If you want to learn more, ScholarshipAmerica.org is the best place to go. What you’ll find are resources to look for scholarships, help you set up a scholarship program and many other ways to support students. We’re here to help and welcome the opportunity to do so.

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