8 From the Eighth: The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, Faith Sandler

August 7, 2013

The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, Faith Sandler (20:49)

Faith Sandler, executive director of The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, discusses the organization’s commitment to providing access to postsecondary education to members of the community who would otherwise not have the financial means to fulfill their educational goals. The Foundation furthers this mission by, among other things, furnishing financial support to students for postsecondary education and providing information needed to make financially sound educational choices.



Jo Greenwald:  Hello, and welcome to Eight from the Eighth—a podcast series from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Community Development Department.  I’m Jo Greenwald from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.  

Despite the increasing value of a college degree in today’s competitive labor market, tuition costs continue to skyrocket relative to wage inflation making higher education disproportionately inaccessible to low- and moderate-income families.  As the availability of public funding simultaneously dwindles, the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis is paving the way for underserved communities by providing economically disadvantaged students in the region with opportunities to obtain affordable financial aid.  

Today, I’m speaking with Faith Sandler, Executive Director of the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis.  Faith is the first Executive Director of the Scholarship Foundation, a position she’s held since 1989.  Previously, she was appointed by the Federal Court to evaluate desegregation programs in St. Louis Public Schools.  In addition to her work with the Scholarship Foundation, Faith currently serves as Co-Chair of St. Louis Graduates, a collaborative network of youth serving college access providers.  She also serves on several Boards of Directors, including the Dan Broida Sigma Aldrich Scholarship Fund, the Washington University Neighbors Council, and the Advisory Board of the University of Missouri-St. Louis Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program.  Faith, thanks so much for joining us.

Faith Sandler:  Jo, thanks for having me.

Jo Greenwald:  The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis views higher education as a catalyst for advancing the economic and civic health of society.  Faith, can you give us an overview of the organization and an explanation of how its work promotes healthy communities?

Faith Sandler:  I absolutely can.  The Scholarship Foundation began 94 years ago.  And at the time, our mission was to make higher education accessible to members of the community who did not have access to it for financial reasons.  At the time, that was all done not just for individual benefit, but because we understood that a healthy community—a democracy—requires an educated citizenry.  And the belief then, as now, was that all members of the community should have access to higher education regardless of their economic circumstance.  Essentially, we believe not only is this good for individuals and their families, but it builds an engaged community; it builds the economic wherewithal to provide jobs and some independence from social systems.  And we know that it improves quality of life for everyone in a metropolitan region, not just for those whose degrees have been accelerated by the process.

Jo Greenwald:  The Scholarship Foundation has operated in St. Louis since 1920.  How have the mission and activities of the organization evolved over the past century?

Faith Sandler:  So when the Scholarship Foundation first began, and probably through the first 50 or 60 years, maybe even 70 of our now 90-something-year history, our part of the financial aid and higher education puzzle really had to do with specifically providing interest-free loans to area residents who didn’t have the financial resources to pursue higher education.  For all of those decades, it was sufficient just to provide the money.  I would say that in the last two decades, we have become increasingly engaged in the work of providing information—helping students and families navigate a complicated process of admission to higher ed institutions and then deciding how to finance their education.  And finally, participating in the kind of advocacy work that hopefully influences financial aid policy and higher education policy so that low-income and first-generation students have a reasonable shot at succeeding.  

Jo Greenwald:  St. Louis fares particularly poorly among similar size cities, in terms of rates of college completion among African-Americans.  What are some reasons for this disparity, and has the Scholarship Foundation developed any targeted strategies for addressing it?

Faith Sandler:  Here is the data about the St. Louis region.  If we compare ourselves to the top 35 metro regions, we know that we’re 12th in high school completion; and that’s pretty good among 35, and we’re pretty happy with that.  We know that for baccalaureate degree completion, the St. Louis region ranks about 24th.  We start to get a little concerned.  When we look specifically at baccalaureate degree completion among our African-American population, we see that we’re 31st of 35, so we’ve dropped lower, and lower, and lower, and there we see the crux of one of the important issues for our region.

I think one of the reasons that it is specifically an entrenched problem in St. Louis is that in St. Louis, race and class are very closely aligned.  So if you are—and we know that higher education completion is very closely correlated with economic class.  But I don’t think it’s sufficient to say that it’s simply a matter of race; but more it is a matter of economic access; and in the St. Louis region, economic strength and race are very closely correlated.  And with regard to efforts that the Scholarship Foundation is making to address that, those efforts have been ongoing for a number of years. We work at providing direct resources and staffing in high schools and community agencies that serve low-income populations in the region. We work with the St. Louis American and other forms of media that particularly reach an African-American audience or particularly reach families that need the services that we can provide. And we’re very careful to make certain that we are giving the information that some members of the community lack with regard to debt burden—what kinds of opportunities may exist in state and federal aid programs, and how to best position themselves to take advantage of what does exist.

Jo Greenwald: Access to financial aid is, of course, a significant predictor of college enrollment, but it also affects students’ ability to remain in college for the duration of the degree program. Are there specific indicators that the Scholarship Foundation tracks in order to measure the effects of its interest-free loans on persistence and matriculation?

Faith Sandler: One of the things that happens is that the first time a student sets foot on a college campus coincides with the first time they have access to a fairly large budget that they need to manage. So they receive not only financial aid that covers tuition, but resources to cover expenses like incidental costs, room and board, and that sort of thing. So we’re working with students to be sure that they’re ready to handle that responsibility, or that they have the information they need to handle it responsibly.

            We also are measuring their progress towards a degree. So all of the research would point to indicators such as … By the start of sophomore year or second year of college, a student who’s completed at least twenty credit hours stands out—is highly predictive of degree completion within the common measure of a six-year horizon. So we’re looking at that constantly, and we’re also verifying each semester with our students; not just that they remain enrolled, but both their academic performance and the credits that they have earned. And frankly, our students are graduating within that six-year horizon; our students are graduating at an 80% graduation rate. So we know that we are not only doing a good job of selecting students who are well-positioned to succeed, but we’re supporting them along that path.

Jo Greenwald: Through the Scholarship Foundation’s interest-free loan program, eligible students may receive up to $9,000 per academic year. According to the National Center for Education statistics, however, the average annual cost of attending a four-year public institution is nearly $20,000. Does the Scholarship Foundation leverage any regional, national, or institution specific partnerships to help students afford any unmet financial needs?

Faith Sandler: Our partnerships are specifically designed to address student need. So we would be actively engaged with the state legislature to have input on financial aid policies at the state level. We are engaged at the federal level on commenting on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act or on the interest rates on student loans, which have been a recent issue of great consternation. We are also in dialogue with financial aid offices at colleges and universities to help them better understand how to support students from the St. Louis region who are low income. And finally, we have helped create for the St. Louis region something called Scholarship Central, which is a common scholarship application available online, and a common database and matching for private scholarship dollars with students who submit an application and a profile online to Scholarship Central. And that was a way of opening access to the whole community, providing kind of one-stop shopping, and an opportunity for students to load documents in one place for use in multiple scholarship applications. All of that is a way of leveraging, or recognizing that no one source of aid will be sufficient any longer. It’s been many years since a student could find one silver bullet to answer his or her financial aid needs at the post-secondary level.

Jo Greenwald: “The Atlantic” reported in April of last year that over 50% of recent college graduates were jobless or under-employed. Given the uncertainty of the labor market, and the Scholarship Foundation’s one-year grace period, does the organization offer any assistance for students who struggle with repayment?

Faith Sandler: We look at our responsibility to students who are in loan repayment really in two ways. The first is that the interest-free loans that the Scholarship Foundation extends are really loans that we maintain and manage. And to the extent that a student encounters, after graduation and after a grace period of one year under-employment, unemployment, decides to return to school, encounters medical or family issues that make payment problematic—the Scholarship Foundation can and will reduce or defer payment. Our loans are no interest. We don’t charge interest; and in a period of deferment or in a period of reduced payment, really our goal is to recycle those dollars when and how that it is possible for our students to do so. So upwards of 96%, close to 97% of our loans are repaid, so it’s a less than 3% default rate on our loans. And one of six of our contributors, individuals who choose to make a financial contribution to the Scholarship Foundation, one in six was once one of our students who had significant financial need and is now, has not only repaid his or her loan, but continues to make a contribution, sometimes for decades and decades to come. So that’s the first piece is that we manage our loans compassionately, individually, and certainly with the goal of recycling the principle; so that a subsequent generation of students will benefit, but without the motive of making a profit on those loans. In fact, we’re actively working all the time to supplement the loan fund to keep up with the need to expand the reach of each dollar.

Secondly though, we view our responsibility and loan repayment as really being partners or participants with our students in understanding how to manage the rest of their debt burden, as well. So we’re constantly working with students on payment reduction plans, on whether or not to consolidate their other loans, on how much debt they can manage—or we help them predict what they can manage before they incur it, and then how to manage it once they have incurred that debt. And that’s been a responsibility we’ve shouldered with much more attention in probably the last ten years, as we’ve seen nationally the burden of higher education financing shifting from public entities to individuals and from grants to loans. So it can be very dangerous if not carefully tended, and if not by knowledgeable folk.

Jo Greenwald: Research suggests that children and youth who amass college savings can reap not only financial but psychological and educational benefits, as well. Has the Scholarship Foundation considered incorporating a savings component into its array of services?

Faith Sandler: We’ve explored both the IDA Concept and 529 Plans—we’ve looked at Section 529 Plans. We’ve looked at whether or not we could identify a population of students who we would invest in early in a matched savings vehicle. Our challenges have really been identifying what would, among all the young people in the St. Louis Metropolitan Area, how would we, how would we define a subpopulation that would be eligible for matched savings; and understanding at what moment would be a good time chronologically to offer that match to the student and family. And because all of our assistance is need-based, how can we know that if we’re making a matched savings opportunity to a kindergartener or a fifth grader that seven years hence, when he or she is a senior in high school they are still in a position of financial need.

So we love the concept, and understand that it’s not just about money; but it’s also about messaging—a matched savings plan gives a young person a glimmer of hope, a signal that the community believes you have potential and it is possible, and an opportunity to really learn a little bit about how money grows over time and to invest in himself or herself. And that’s incredibly attractive to us. So it is something we are working on, but we’re working on it, not just as an isolated concept; but how can we incorporate this in a way that’s consistent to our tradition and values of need-based aid and just-in-time funding.

Jo Greenwald: In light of the regional effort to double the number of college graduates over the next decade, what future organizational developments are on the horizon for the Scholarship Foundation?

Faith Sandler: I think one of the most exciting things the Scholarship Foundation has been doing in the last several years will only grow in the next few. And that is, building a collaborative network within the region of nonprofit organizations, funders who are—have been investing and wish to continue to invest in higher education access, higher education institutions, and business and civic leadership. We have helped found an organization called St. Louis Graduates, and the focus of that organization is really to identify what can we build across jurisdictions. So city, county, across school district lines, across organizational lines—what can we do together that help lift up degree attainment as a regional priority, help identify populations like low-income and first-generation students who need and deserve special attention on their road to higher education; and then, what gaps exist that can only be filled by collaborative efforts. So an example of that would be, we’ve helped found a summer drop-in center that exists at the corner of Skinker and Delmar and it’s called the High School to College Center. And its goal is specifically to be present and problem-solve between the moment a high school graduate crosses that stage saying, “Of course, I’m going to college in the fall,” and the fall when, hopefully, that individual is sufficiently funded and able to transition to college. We know that nationally among all populations, we lose 10% of those intending to go to college over that critical summer. But among low-income students, it’s as high as 30% to 50%. It’s a real hard thing to measure, but within that window, everything within that window is too much of a loss for a community like ours to bear, especially given our commitment and investment in those students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

 So the High School to College Center is an example of something the Scholarship Foundation couldn’t have done on its own, wouldn’t have done on its own; but in partnership with, you know, ten or twelve funding sources, 20 different school districts, guidance counselors, and a number of nonprofit community organizations, we’ve opened a Summer Center that’s available seven days a week to anyone who needs to walk in and get help with a barrier that has surfaced at the last minute. So I think we’ll be doing more of that kind of work, where we know that our critical skill is the financial piece of higher education access and success. We can help train our colleagues who may know another aspect of the process. We can learn by working side-by-side. And most importantly, we can move the needle for the region, and create opportunity where once doors were closed.

Jo Greenwald: Well, Faith, thank you again so much for joining us today. Your insights about financial access to higher education have really been enlightening.

Faith Sandler: I’m so glad to be here, and I’m really thrilled with the Federal Reserve’s attention to this issue. The more people who know, the more will care, and the more we can do to change inequality and lack of access.

Jo Greenwald: We’ve been speaking with Faith Sandler, Executive Director of the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis. For more information about the organization and its financial assistance offerings, visit the Scholarship Foundation on the web at www.sfstl.org. More information on Eight from the Eighth, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Community Development podcast series is available at www.SaintLouisFed.org/ CommunityDevelopment. Be sure to tune in again for more great interviews with leading professionals in the field of community and economic development, and thanks for listening.

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