Interest-free loans for local students going on to college were established by Martin and Winnifred Ehlers years ago, and the benefits last for decades.

The cost of a college education continues to rise, and, for some, those costs can hinder their goal of earning a degree. Those who do pursue post-secondary education quickly discover the costs associated with furthering their education result in taking out loans at a high rate of interest. That can have them entering the working world with big debt they are going to be dealing with for years to come. In an effort to help address those financial realities a program was established in Redwood Falls by a benefactor named Martin Ehlers. Called the Martin and Winifred Ehlers Scholarship Fund, the program provides funds for students who are in need and who want to take their education to the next level. What makes the fund unique is it is not a scholarship program in the traditional sense of the word. Funds are not granted. The dollars are loaned to students, which means they must be paid back after their degree is earned. 

Unlike other school loans, however, the Ehlers loan is interest free. Loans made through the program are approved by a board of directors and have a $5,000 maximum per year. According to Pat Dingels of the Redwood Area Develop-ment Corporation, which oversees the loan program under the Redwood Area Communities Founda-tion, the loans are available for students in the Redwood area. “These are our own kids who can get these loans,” said Dingels. She said from the program’s beginnings there have been 430 students who have taken advantage of the program, with $2.3 million in loans allocated. “That’s quite a legacy,” added Dingels. Among those who have been recipients of the program are Nathan Stephens of the Stephens Funeral Service in Redwood Falls and Katherine Brozek of the Red-wood Area Hospital. Stephens, who worked for Martin Ehlers while he was in high school, said he was the first to receive the loan. Stephens, who planned to attend Gustavus Adolphus College, said he knew college was going to be expensive. “It’s a great tool,” said Stephens. “I’m grateful I got to know Martin and Winifred and for the help they provided for me.” Brozek said almost one third of the cost of college was funded through the program. “This is a big deal for our community,” she said, adding it just demonstrates how much Martin and Win-ifred were committed to supporting education and the community. Jan Jacobsen, who served on the board for the loan program from the beginning, said it began when Martin came into the bank where she worked. Martin said he wanted to set up the program and was going to establish it with $50,000. Since that initial gift the gifts continued into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. As the program grew it was apparent Jacob-sen and Gail Ripka, who also helped oversee the program through the bank, they were spending a lot of time on it. The more the allocation grew the more time was spent accepting applications, preparing documents and keeping track of the students who had received loans. It was in the late 90s when the development corporation took it over. Jacobsen has been involved in every loan over the life of the program, and has decided it is time for the next generation to get involved. She has opted to retire from the board, which means there is an opening. Jacobsen said it has been a lot of fun being part of the program, as so many of the area’s youth have been impacted by it. She said there have been students with various interests who have been approved. One does not have to attend a four-year program to qualify, and as long as the student stays in college – potentially through earning a doctorate de-gree – they are eligible for funding. Students who attend community or technical colleges and non-traditional students also are eligible. After finishing school, loan recipients have seven years to pay back the funds. Dingels said over the years there have only been two loans defaulted. The first loans were made during the 1992-93 school year. “As the loans are paid off those funds go right back into the program for other student loans,” said Ripka. What that means is the program is going to exist into perpetuity. Martin Ehlers was known for his optimistic personality and his “it can be done” life perspective, and one can see he has demonstrated through this program the truth of that concept. To find out more about the Ehlers loan program, one may contact Dingels at the development corporation at (507) 637-4004 or visit