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As Education Costs Rise, Miss America Scholarship Program Leads Way | Commentary

For more than 90 years, the Miss America Organization has been a societal force for women, and for the past 70 years, the organization has been empowering them to achieve their dreams by providing an outlet for their education and talents.

Given the ongoing discussion among Washington, D.C., policymakers and the American public about rising student loans and the importance of getting young women engaged in STEM education, the nation’s capital was a fitting stopover on the Miss America 2015 contestants’ journey to Atlantic City, where this year’s competition will take place on September 14 live on ABC. Along with the 53 contestants vying for the crown, Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri, who herself received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in brain, behavior and cognitive science, visited the city to help promote Miss America’s education and empowerment mission and share their own exceptional journeys.

Bess Meyerson, crowned in 1945, was the first to receive once of our college scholarships for women in the United States. Calling the Miss America pageant — and the more than 1,200 local and state pageants that lead up to it — a “scholarship program” comes as a surprise to many Americans. But at its core, the Miss America Organization is serious about education, and we are proud to give women across the country, from all means, backgrounds, colors, and creeds the resources and training to reach their educational and career goals and, ultimately, to become leaders in their communities.

Helping to finance education is no small matter. According to a report in the Boston Globe, some 40 million Americans have outstanding student loan debt totaling $1.2 trillion. That makes student loans the second-largest form of consumer debt, second only to mortgages. Young people in America should be focused on building their career paths — and their future savings. Yet, we are saddling them with an enormous financial burden that often takes years, and even decades, to fully pay off.

On an annual basis, the Miss America Organization and its affiliate, the Miss America Foundation, make up to $45 million in scholarships available to contestants. Last year, of the 53 Miss America contestants, 17 women, including five finalists and two winners were in STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and math) education fields of study. This year, the Miss America Organization will be awarding five STEM scholarships.

We believe STEM fields offer many opportunities for young women to build meaningful, long-lasting careers that contribute to the greater public good and keep America competitive globally. With Miss America’s reach into communities across this country, we serve as an exciting and rather unconventional advocate of STEM education. Hundreds of Miss America competitors have pursued STEM careers, but we believe there could be even more by inspiring other young girls and young women to explore their interest in STEM-related fields.

This year, Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri traversed the country, visiting 18 colleges and universities — from Ohio to Michigan to North Carolina. She shared her own experiences overcoming obstacles and documented her path toward pursuing a STEM-related career as an aspiring doctor. Nina has been a tremendous ambassador for Miss America with a unique background that has inspired so many, and we are excited to crown Miss America 2015 later this month to begin a new era of education and empowerment.

The Miss America contestants’ trip to Washington, D.C., wasn’t about politics. Instead, it was evident that these extraordinary young women demonstrated the powerful qualities of self-awareness, self-reliance and self-realization and help highlight the need to invest in young women’s futures by giving them the educational foundation to become the leaders of tomorrow.

Sam Haskell is the chairman of Miss America Organization.

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