The Man who Started it All

June 1, 2016

Dr. Irving A. Fradkin

When Scholarship America originated fifty-five years ago, the cost of education wasn’t at the forefront of most people’s minds. College tuition was a fraction of what it is today. But America saw a huge need for an educated citizenry, and as the number of jobs that required educated workers increased, so did students’ desire for a college education, something that their parents hadn’t set aside money for and many just couldn’t afford. 

In 1958, in Fall River, Mass., Dr. Irving Fradkin, a young optometrist from Fall River, Massachusetts, was one of the first in the nation to notice a discrepancy between a student’s desire to go to college and their family’s ability to pay for it. When high school students from the town came in to have their eyes examined, Dr. Fradkin would ask what their dreams and hopes were for the future. Many would tell him they were planning on dropping out, or that the furthest they would go was graduation. College simply hadn’t crossed their minds. 

This troubled the doctor. “I became an optometrist because I wanted everyone to see,” Dr. Fradkin explained. “I thought, ‘this is what I want to do with my life,’ and I was able to develop a gift because of a college education. I wanted the same for these kids.” But no matter how much he encouraged his young patients, they almost always replied—we can’t afford it. 

An idea came to Dr. Fradkin. “I said to himself, ‘Tuition is only $200. If a student knew that he had that amount of money set aside for is education, he would stay in school and not drop out. He would go on to college, and his family, his community, America— would be better off.’” 

Dr. Fradkin decided to run for school board on the platform of higher education for young people—and then lost. Shortly after the election, his receptionist’s young son said to “Too bad you lost the election, because kids like me just lost the opportunity for an education.” It was in that moment when he decided he wouldn’t stop working to help young people go to college. 

Dr. Fradkin knew that if every one of the 30,000 households in Fall River gave $1, or $8.45 in today’s money, it would be enough to send every graduating Fall River senior to college. He printed cards and asked people for $1 donations to become “members.”  

He organized a committee, and after four months they had raised $4,500, including a $1 donation from Eleanor Roosevelt.

During that first year, even after everyone told him it was impossible, Dr. Fradkin raised enough money to give out 24 scholarships, each renewable for four years. Dollars for Scholars was officially born. By 1960, Dr. Fradkin had started 11 Dollars for Scholars chapters in New England. In 1961, the organization we know today as Scholarship America was officially established.

Nearly sixty years later, Dr. Fradkin has continued to work tirelessly for Scholarship America, for students in Fall River (where he still resides with his wife Charlotte), and for education in America. Among Dr. Fradkin’s numerous honors include the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators’ Distinguished Service Award, the 2010 NCAN “Champion for College Access” Award, the Isaiah Avila Award for “Uncommon Common Man,” the Schow-Donnelly Service Before Self Award and a recognition from the Presidential Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, New England College of Optometry.

Dr. Fradkin was active and continued to be a staunch supporter of Families of Freedom until his passing at age 95 in November, 2016 in Fall River. Families of Freedom recipient and George Washington University student Casey Hargrave, pictured at left, had the opportunity to meet Dr. Fradkin  at a Scholarship America event in Washington DC.

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