Bill Cirone, Santa Barbara Superintendent of Schools

When faced with enormous challenges, it’s easy for a pessimist to say that nothing can be done. However, for proof that just a few people can move mountains in pursuit of a worthy goal, look no farther than the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara.

In 1962, a few volunteers from the PTA and American Association of University Women joined to give scholarships of $100 each to nine students. That effort launched the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara, which in the past 50 years has awarded $70 million to more than 30,000 deserving students in all parts of Santa Barbara County.

Just last year, the foundation provided more than 2,400 scholarships to undergraduate, graduate, and vocational students and, in partnership with the Santa Barbara Foundation, 223 no-interest loans — more than $7 million in aid.

Equally important, with additional help from the Orfalea Foundation, the scholarship foundation’s representatives met in individual sessions with nearly 1,100 high school students and their parents to educate them about planning for college and finding sources of financial aid. The advising program also hosted nearly 900 outreach events last year that reached more than 26,000 people. Over 50 years, it has helped hundreds of thousands of our neighbors and their children.

Even as we try to grasp those big numbers, it’s difficult to comprehend the impact the foundation has made, and the strength it has added to Santa Barbara County’s social fabric and economic life. Research shows that a college graduate will earn $1.2 million more over a lifetime than someone whose education stops at high school. As the foundation points out, that makes higher education “an appreciating asset,” because higher-earning college graduates pay higher taxes to support important public programs and are less likely to need public support. In addition, they are more likely to contribute to their communities through their careers, donations and volunteer efforts. These scholarships also support our economy and quality of life by helping to provide the well-educated workforce that local professions, businesses, and industries need, especially as baby boomers continue to retire.

Approximately one-quarter of the families in Santa Barbara County live below the federal poverty level, and about half the students helped by the foundation are the first in their families to pursue a higher education. Many of them, without this kind of help, might not dare even to dream of college opportunities. These scholarships — and the confidence they instill when students realize that someone believes in them — are more important now than ever.

Research shows that $1,000 in financial aid reduces the likelihood of a first-year, low-income student dropping out of school by 23 percent. The foundation can say proudly that 83 percent of its scholarship recipients complete their degrees, compared with a national average of 52 percent.

Despite this success, last year the foundation had to turn down more than 700 qualified students for lack of funds. These are young people who have completed a rigorous application process and demonstrated high achievement, exceptional commitment, and genuine need. Meanwhile, reductions in federal and state funding have led most colleges to increase tuition and fees, so the importance of the foundation’s work, and the community’s continued financial support, becomes clear.

As the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara enters its second 50 years, it has shown itself worthy of that community support in the face of enormous challenges. Certainly, the foundation’s small staff and the many board members, donors, and volunteers who have sustained it over half a century deserve our congratulations, and our gratitude.