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VIEWPOINT: Think locally, give locally, teach locally

MINNEAPOLIS -- Our nation has an incredible opportunity right now to ensure our global standing and economic security. That opportunity lies in the hands of every citizen.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Our nation has an incredible opportunity right now to ensure our global standing and economic security. That opportunity lies in the hands of every citizen.

That opportunity is in making sure that postsecondary education remains within reach of every student.

As individuals, we must take the responsibility for higher education into our own hands --to develop 21st-century grass-roots campaigns that will help provide families the access to financial resources for postsecondary education. Unless we act soon, and collectively, an entire generation of Americans could be lost.

Education is America's No. 1 economic development tool, assuring a stronger future for the nation. But as the recession continues to exact its harsh toll on the U.S., that future may be in jeopardy.

The benefits of a postsecondary education are undeniable. According to research by the College Board, a person with a college degree is more likely to be employed and less likely to be in poverty or involved in criminal activity. Typical college graduates earn about 73 percent more durint their lifetimes than do those with only high-school degrees.

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As unemployment reaches 9.2 percent -- even higher among underserved students -- even middle-class families that once thought they could afford to send their children to college now are seeing that dream slip away. While it's true that federal and private loans remain a viable option, the credit market is tight. Parent- and student-loan programs are more cautious than ever and have implemented stricter lending criteria.

We cannot afford to close the door to higher education for any student.

Our last and best hope if we are to help the next generation of Americans get into college and graduate with far less loan debt is to support local needs-based scholarship programs. As we wend our way through this economic crisis, scholarships will increasingly mean the difference between a student attending college or not.

As president and CEO of Scholarship America, the nation's largest scholarship and educational support organization, I know firsthand how local, community-based scholarship programs can help hometown students achieve their dreams. Volunteer-driven programs such as Scholarship America's Dollars for Scholars program empower communities to help themselves by helping to educate the young people who live in their midst.

With more than 1,100 locally based, volunteer-driven chapters serving students across the country, Dollars for Scholars provides a proven and effective way for communities to provide academic support and financial aid to local students. Since its founding in 1958, this program has awarded scholarships to more than 500,000 deserving students.

The Grand Forks chapter of Dollars for Scholars has distributed more than $350,000 to 1,974 students since its founding in 1964. Statewide, the Dollars for Scholars program has distributed nearly $7.6 million to more than 16,000 students.

America can and must step up to the plate and create a real grass-roots effort to ensure that the next generation of Americans is prepared to take on the mantle of leadership. The question is not, "Can we afford to give?" The question is, "How can we afford not to?"

Stanley is president and CEO of Scholarship America, the nation's largest scholarship organization.

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