Judy Ralston-Hansen last summer began a two-year term as the chair of the Iowa College Foundation (ICF) board of governors. The foundation raises scholarship funds for 23 private colleges around the state, primarily from businesses. ICF has raised nearly $70 million since it was founded in 1952. Ralston-Hansen is the first woman to serve as the board chair for the organization. “I think it’s pretty cool,” she said. “I think it’s about time.” By day, Ralston-Hansen has worked at West Des Moines-based Homesteaders Life Co. for 17 years. Homesteaders is a funeral insurance funding provider. 

What should businesses know about the Iowa College Foundation?

When we go out there, we really talk about the success that ICF has had. There’s 32 other states in the country that have similar types of organizations to ICF, but ICF ranks No. 2 in the country in total dollars raised and No. 1 in the number of donors. So we really have a pretty broad reach. We do this with three paid staff members, so our overhead is very low. Over 48,000 students attend Iowa’s private colleges and universities. By them attending private colleges, that saves Iowa taxpayers in public school tuition subsidies. And 73 percent of graduates who attend the member colleges stay in Iowa, so that really helps offset a lot of what we hear about the Iowa “brain drain” of students attending college and leaving the state.

Do you consider private colleges to be in competition with state schools?

Actually, it’s kind of ironic. I am also on the Dean’s Advisory Council for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Iowa State. I think they really work in partnership with each other. A state school isn’t for every student or for every graduating high school student. It’s great for some, and private college is just another opportunity. 

Why are you passionate about higher education?

I was really fortunate. My parents afforded me the opportunity to go to college, and they paid for my college. So I graduated with minimal debt. That’s just not the case anymore. ICF really works to provide financial support for students who want to get a higher education, so they can graduate without that looming debt load, or at least minimize it. I’ve been in human resources my whole career. I’ve interviewed a ton of people. I’ve always known how important education is in getting good jobs.

Is the debt level the biggest challenge facing higher education?

I think it’s a pretty significant problem facing students. It’s a real deterrent for the fear of going to college and then looking at that debt. And I’m afraid that sometimes that debt load causes that college graduate to maybe not make the decisions they want to make. So I think that really is a huge influence on higher education right now and we need to get our arms around it so we can make education affordable for all students who want to attend.

Have women been given enough opportunities to serve on boards in this area?

I think in nonprofit boards that women are well-represented, and for-profit boards, I think it’s a challenge for anyone to get on a for-profit board whether you are a male or female. At Homesteaders, we have an eight-person board, and one of our board members is a woman, Katie Roth, who has been on our board for a number of years. I am proud we have a woman on our board. I do think women bring a unique perspective to any board. But women have to do their part as well, because they need to make their desires known and put themselves in a position to be asked. I do think, though, that women are probably underrepresented on for-profit boards.

Tell me about your career at Homesteaders.

We’re a small company, we have about 175 employees, so with a small company, you truly wear a lot of hats. I’m on the executive team, so on any given day, I can be in a strategy meeting. In my HR role, I can be interviewing and dealing with employee relations. In my administrative role, I can be worried about the geese that are nesting in our parking lot. And why the roof is leaking. It’s a great role for someone like me. And Homesteaders is a niche-marketing company, so I also have the opportunity to get to know a lot of our customers as well. We work in the funeral industry, so that makes it even more unique. 

What do you do in your free time?

It’s just my husband and I, and we love to travel. So we travel locally throughout the state, and the last couple of years we traveled internationally some.