Womble photo

Ann Womble

In 1961, a group of enterprising and civic-minded Lancastrians decided they wanted to help motivated and qualified local students who couldn’t afford college realize their dreams of earning a degree.

It was the earliest version of what the United Way now calls a community “bold goal,” only this one was aimed at raising post-secondary educational attainment in Lancaster County.

From the outset, the group wanted it to be a loan program, albeit interest-free and with favorable repayment terms, and not a gift program. Why? The group knew something very important about the character-influencing difference between a handout and a hand-up, and it was counting on Lancaster County’s strong work ethic to propel students to repay their loans and go on to pursue meaningful and productive lives. The group was right.

Fifty-four years later, that local interest-free loan program continues to endure and thrive. In that span of time, the organization now known as Lancaster Dollars for Higher Learning has helped more than 10,000 local students attend colleges and universities, technical and trade schools. The basic tenets are still the same — need-based, interest-free loans for up to four years of full-time, accredited education beyond high school. And the repayment terms are generous and affordable.

Its success is a testament to its founders and the residents of this county. It embodies the neighborly lessons of “paying it forward” to future generations and “giving back” to the place where you grew up — and best of all — it’s not a government program!

Most people who go to college take on some debt through the course of their studies, but too much interest-bearing student debt can hinder one’s financial life for decades.

Today we read so much about what seems to be crushing student debt in America; it makes people wonder if pursuing college is even worth it. Thankfully there are new tools such as the federal College Scorecard that help families make realistic, fact- and value-based decisions about which colleges to attend and which majors to pursue. Key factors to consider are graduation and job-placement rates, and average salaries after graduation.

There are other ways to keep college affordable. Consider two years at a community college before transferring to a four-year school to complete a bachelor’s degree. The final degree can still come from a “dream school,” and the first two years of reduced costs will make the end result much more affordable.

Also, before pursuing any loans — even interest-free ones — seek as much merit- and need-based scholarship and grant money as possible. All it takes is time for the Internet research and a dogged determination to meet the deadlines and qualifications.

Parents can help by investing in a good 529 Plan for their children as soon as they are born. A 529 Plan is an education savings plan operated by a state or educational institution that is designed to help families set aside funds for future college costs. In most plans, your choice of school is not affected by the state that administers your 529 savings plan. So, you can be a Pennsylvania resident, invest in a Utah plan, and send your student to college in North Carolina.

Back in 1961, those forward-thinking Lancastrians knew something important and built something to last. Education is the launching pad for a better life, more economic security and higher civic engagement. So, pursue a degree today but keep the expense affordable; your future self and family will thank you.

 Ann Womble, executive director of Lancaster Dollars for Higher Learning, is a community member of the LNP Editorial Board.