Ron Gallo is CEO of the prestigious Santa Barbara Foundation. He also is the first in his family to receive a college education. Gallo is, thus, more than qualified to understand the value of an education.

So, when Gallo mentioned last week how important it is to engage students in the concept of higher education and getting a degree, he speaks with special authority.

Gallo also spoke with something else — a one-year Foundation grant of $250,000 to the endowment fund being created at Allan Hancock College.

The endowment plan is a five-year, $10-million account to support the Hancock Promise, the college's tuition-free guarantee for first-year students. The fund was announced last week by college officials, who see the strategy as a way to secure a sustainable future for the program.

The program will launch next summer, and while the ultimate goal of raising $10 million may seem daunting, college officials have already received pledges of more than $2 million.

Last week’s presentation included gifts from local organizations, the largest being from the Santa Barbara Foundation. The other contributors on stage included the Rotary Club of Santa Ynez Valley, and the Santa Maria Kiwanis 4 Kids Foundation.

Those organizations’ contributions make it clear that local supporters are stepping up to help Hancock College meet a very real need, and we have a lot of facts to support such a need.

Only about half of the young people who enter colleges and universities each year go on to graduate within six years. The completion issue is even more pronounced for community colleges, with just 29 percent of those starting out on a two-year degree program managing to graduate within three years.

One shouldn’t jump to conclusions about why so many students don’t complete their degree programs — because it’s almost always all about the money.

Nearly three-quarters of students graduating from four-year colleges do so deeply in debt. The average student loan is nearly $30,000. Community colleges enroll more than 6 million students nationwide, and a third drop out within the first year. College completion rates in the United States have been blocked by money problems for more than three decades.

Again, it’s almost always because of money, or rather not having enough of it to stay the course and get a degree.

Hancock College has a record far better than most, and you find the evidence everywhere you turn on the Central Coast. Hancock grads are involved in just about every area of the public and private sectors.

Hancock President Kevin Walthers points out that a major topic of conversation among Hancock officials is "changing the odds for our students …” And that’s what the Hancock Promise is all about.

Hancock College is pushing back against the costs of higher education, lowering the price students pay to attend AHC via the Hancock Promise program that will provide an investment in high school graduates by covering tuition and fees for full-time students who enroll in the fall semester immediately following graduation.

That is vitally important, because student debt is the fastest-growing segment of consumer debt in the nation, with students now owing more than $1.3 trillion.

Higher education remains one of the most important stepping stones for Americans striving to enter the middle class, but the personal investment required is killing the dream for far too many young people and their families.

Here’s a happy-holidays idea — help future students by participating in the Hancock Promise initiative, because doing so also means you are helping the nation, and therefore yourself.

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