From the Archives: A College Miracle? How Some Bright Students are Graduating Virtually Debt-Free, Thanks to a Program Unique to Florida

By Robert Sanchez

“The Southern Scholarship Foundation has been a huge blessing to me. Not only has SSF provided for me financially to live near campus, but living in a community of diverse individuals has also been a great learning experience. SSF cultivates responsibility, promotes educational excellence, and provides a home away from home where life-long friends and colleagues are forged.”

 — Allie Burroughs, Florida State University Student

Can today’s college students realistically expect to graduate debt-free? For far too many, sadly, the answer is “no.” Most face a double whammy of expense: tuition, which has been growing faster than the rate of inflation, and the cost of living away from home. For many students, graduating without having to cope with a heavy burden of debt just as they’re trying to get started in a career is but a distant dream. Indeed, student loan debt now tops one trillion dollars, which is more than the total credit card debt in this credit-happy nation.

Yet for some bright young collegians in Florida, graduating virtually debt-free is not a mere pipe dream; it’s a reality thanks to the Southern Scholarship Foundation (SSF), a group that is unique to Florida and this year marked the 60th anniversary of its formal organization as a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) corporation back in 1955.

There are slightly varied accounts of how it all began. According to this video version worthy of a time capsule, in 1953 a Baptist minister visited Dr. Mode Stone at Florida State University (FSU) and asked him to help find a way for two bright young men of limited means to work their way through school. Stone, the longtime Dean of FSU’s College of Education, had grown up poor in Blountstown and had managed to work his way through the University of Florida, so he could easily relate to their request. His decision to find a way to help those two young men led to a program that has helped several thousand students during the six decades of its existence.

A slightly different version of the circumstances surrounding the SSF’s founding appears on its website. It has been edited slightly for this article and is worth a read because it so succinctly and clearly explains nature of the SSF’s purpose, which has been aptly summarized in its mission statement as “To help deserving young people who lack financial resources, but demonstrate excellent academic merit and good character, attend institutions of higher education.”

According to that account, “In the spring of 1953, Dr. Stone was invited to deliver the commencement address at to two high schools, one in Altha and the other in Blountstown, Florida. While there he met the valedictorian from each school, Enoch Hanna and Jimmy Geoghagen. These students told Dr. Stone that they wanted to attend Florida State University, but had no money for housing.

SSF Founder Dr. Mode L. Stone in Tallahassee, Florida. Courtesy of Southern Scholarship Foundation.

SSF Supporters, ca. 1960s. Courtesy of Southern Scholarship Foundation.

“Later in the spring, these two young men, who were to become the first Southern Scholarship students, went to Dr. Stone’s office asking for his help in figuring out a way for them to attend college, in spite of less than two hundred dollars between them. Typical of Dr. Stone, he agreed to help and invited them to spend the night with his family on Jefferson Street.

“During the night, Dr. Stone began to think that by providing housing at no cost and allowing the students to pool their money and work together, enough savings could be realized to make a college education possible. He immediately made an appointment with the FSU Registrar to get the boys enrolled. He then obtained permission for the boys to move into an abandoned barracks at Dale Mabry Field and arranged with local business leaders to donate furnishings and appliances. Word quickly spread, and by the end of the semester, eleven young men were sharing the new cooperative living arrangement in the barracks.

“Dr. Stone, along with [a group of professors] and prominent Tallahassee attorney J. Velma Keen, further developed this unique concept to help capable, motivated, and financially needy young people gain access to higher education. Their idea was to build and purchase houses and to offer deserving students scholarships in the form of rent-free housing. Southern Scholarship Foundation (SSF), officially incorporated on April 13, 1955, is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation and is not a part of the state university system.

“The founders purchased the first house in March of 1955…Today the Foundation owns and/or operates a total of 27 scholarship houses: 14 at Florida State University and three at Florida A&M University (FAMU) in Tallahassee, nine at the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville, and one at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) in Ft. Myers. We are currently housing over 458 students and have assisted more than 8,000 deserving students…”

Selby House Residents, March 20, 1963. Courtesy of Southern Scholarship Foundation.

Mode Stone House Dedication, November 3, 1983. Courtesy of Southern Scholarship Foundation.

It should be noted that in 1955, when the SSF was incorporated and purchased its first house, the state of Florida had only three public universities: FSU and FAMU in Tallahassee, and UF in Gainesville. All were located far from the state’s major population centers. Worse, at that time, Florida has only four public community colleges (then known as “junior colleges”) — in Pensacola, Marianna, St. Petersburg, and West Palm Beach. So for most of Florida’s high school graduates, the option of saving money by living at home and commuting to class was not available. The state’s first “urban” university, Tampa’s University of South Florida, didn’t open its doors for student until 1960, and the state universities in Boca Raton, Miami, Jacksonville, and Pensacola came along even later, as did 24 more community colleges, most of which are now known as “state colleges” and offer baccalaureate degrees in selected high-demand fields.

Even now, when there is a public university, state college, or community college campus or a branch thereof within convenient commuting distance of virtually every high school graduate in the state, living at home is not always a viable option for many graduates. For some aspiring students, their home life may be a chaotic mix of rowdy siblings and financially struggling parents (or parent) residing in cramped quarters missing essentials such as internet access, laptops, quiet times, mentoring, positive role models, and an understanding of what college is all about.

Significantly, the SSF program’s remarkable success is an example of what can be achieved through the private sector’s philanthropy. As the Foundation notes, “Since day one all funds required to establish, maintain and repair the houses, and operate the Foundation have come from individuals, civic groups, charitable foundations, corporations and alumni. The Southern Scholarship Foundation has never received any funding from the state or federal government. The annual budget is now more than a million dollars a year.”

During the 2014-15 academic year, there were 458 students in SSF housing: 240 in the 14 houses at FSU, 150 in the nine houses at UF, 51 in the three houses at FAMU, and 17 in the lone house at FGCU. Each SSF house is home to 8 to 31 students. Approximately two-thirds of the residents (306) are co-eds residing in the 18 SSF houses designated for females, while the other 152 are college men residing in the nine SSF houses designated for male students.

Although the residents pay no rent, they do contribute to the costs of each house — utilities, internet access, food, and so on. More important, they contribute by sharing chores ranging from keeping the facilities clean to preparing and serving food for the group meals that are shared several times a week.

Moreover, as SSF President/CEO Mickey S. Moore has pointed out, not only do the residents learn to shoulder their responsibilities and abide by the house rules (no booze, no drugs, no overnight visitors) but they also learn to get along with a very diverse group of students who share one trait: They’re all pretty smart, with college grade-point averages well north of B plus, enabling many to qualify for scholarship aid and spurn student loans. As a result, there’s another thing they share: More graduate with far less debt than the typical college grad nowadays. Indeed, some 80 percent owe less than $10,000 when they graduate — a significantly lighter burden of debt than most grads bear nowadays.

Image Credit: Florida Verve

SSF’s President Moore is among SSF’s proud alumni. He reports that more than 8,500 students have benefited from this program, and now many are giving back, contributing more than $200,000 during SSF’s most recent fiscal year. Many prominent Floridians have contributed their time and money to the program. Dave Mica, Executive Director of the Florida Petroleum Council, currently chairs the SSF’s Board of Directors, which includes no less than nine members who are SSF alumni. The James Madison Institute’s founder, the late Dr. J. Stanley Marshall, chaired the Board of Directors twice, in 1968-69 and again in 1981-82.

Some may wonder about the SSF’s name. Why the “Southern Scholarship Foundation” instead of the “Florida Scholarship Foundation”? President Moore explains that one of the founders, Tallahassee attorney J. Velma Keen, had a vision that because the program was such a good idea, it would surely be replicated in other states — especially neighboring states in the South, where there were high rates of poverty. Unfortunately, according to President Moore, he knows of no other state where the SSF model is flourishing as it is in Florida.

Image Credit: Florida Verve

While we Floridians might wish the SSF’s program had been replicated in other states and that the program in Florida could expand further to help many more than 458 of the 300,000-plus students enrolled in Florida’s public universities, we can take some satisfaction in knowing that the program is in good hands, is financially sound, and is growing under the leadership of SSF alumnus President Moore, who was a banker and business consultant before he agreed in 2009 to lead the Foundation.

And maybe there is one more thing in which we Floridians can take some satisfaction. From time to time “Flori-duh” is mocked in the national media for phenomena that are perceived as unique to the state, i.e. botched elections, paint-devouring snails, giant cockroaches, walking catfish, escaped pythons, and retirees who mistake their land yacht’s accelerator for the brake pedal and thereby convert a convenience store into a drive-in. Florida-based authors such as Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen have contributed to this perception as they mined this nugget-rich “zany Florida” vein of humor.

Now, with the success of the Southern Scholarship Foundation, Florida finally has something very positive that is unique to our state and, during its 60 years of existence, has helped several thousand college students graduate without being mired deep in debt. Given the general condition of most college graduates nowadays, that is indeed an achievement of which we Floridians can be proud.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 7, 2015.