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As another semester begins at Santa Rosa Junior College this week, the Doyle Scholarship will be providing a financial boost to about 150 more students than last year.

“It’s great; a lot of people at my high school got it this year,” said Doyle recipient and recent El Molino High graduate Fiona Barbolak, seated at a shady picnic table Thursday at the school’s welcome celebration, First Oaks.

She was one of several students milling around the event who said the award, reinstated after a hiatus last fall, provided much-needed cash for books, parking fees and other expenses they might otherwise have struggled to cover. The scholarship, paid for by a trust funded by Exchange Bank dividends, was suspended during the recession. Now, as Exchange Bank’s business increases with the improving economy, the scholarship fund is slowly rebounding.

The college awarded $1,000 scholarships to 873 students this year. That’s up from the $700 sums that went to 721 students last fall, said Kris Shear, SRJC’s director of student financial services.

And next fall’s award could be even larger: Exchange Bank announced this week it will increase the dividend it pays to shareholders this quarter.

For more than six decades, the Frank P. Doyle and Polly O’Meara Doyle Trust has funded the scholarship with dividends from the bank, where the trust is the largest shareholder. With those funds, SRJC has been able to provide more than $80 million in scholarships to more than 122,000 students, Shear said.

The Doyle long has given high school students hope about being able to afford college as well as an incentive to do well in high school so they qualify, said Lori Chamberlin. She’s a counselor at Elsie Allen High School, where about 60 percent of graduating students go on to the junior college.

“For a lot of our students who don’t have the financial means, college seems out of reach for them, even though they have a lot of potential,” she said. “The Doyle, thank God it’s come back, makes it possible for those students without the finances to pursue college.”

At peak economic times, about 5,000 students each year received Doyle awards of $1,000 to $1,600. That was possible because of Exchange Bank’s large annual dividends which went as high as $6.10 per share in 2007. But the following year, hobbled by the financial crisis, the bank quit paying dividends and the scholarships were suspended.

As the bank recovered, the program was restored last fall, but on a smaller scale.

In response to the lesser funds, the school tightened its criteria. To qualify, students must now have a GPA of 3.0 or higher, instead of 2.5. And while the scholarships used to be renewable from one year to the next, now they’re only available for one year, and only to students who have just graduated from high school.

But since last year, the bank has continued to improve, said Greg Jahn, the bank’s chief financial officer. That made it possible for the college this fall to hand out a larger number of scholarships. And this week, Jahn announced the bank will be paying increased dividends of 40 cents a share in September.

Shear said it’s too soon to know how that news will affect the number and size of Doyle scholarships. The college plans the size of the next academic year’s scholarship program each December after it knows how much it will be receiving from the Doyle Trust, she said.

And Jahn could not predict whether the bank would continue paying its shareholders larger sums that would in turn fuel the scholarship, as that depends on the bank’s future performance. However, he said, recent earnings pointed to the bank’s improved credit and health.

“We feel confident we’re seeing some progress in the economy, some traction,” he said. “It’s not to the level anyone would like, but there are signs that small businesses are starting to gain confidence and expand their growth.”

But it’s unlikely the bank’s dividends will return to their pre-recession highs, he said. At that time, the bank made unusually strong gains and paid an unusually large portion of its earnings to shareholders.

SRJC student Katie Blethrow, 19, received the scholarship last year and she hoped returning students would one day be able to receive it again.

She said the scholarship “helped out a lot” last year, especially with purchasing expensive textbooks. Without the help this year, things are much tougher, she said. She’s looked for other scholarships but has found she doesn’t qualify for most because they’re tailored to a certain type of student or field of study. The Doyle, on the other hand, is open to anyone with a high enough GPA.

“A returning Doyle,” she said, “That would be awesome.”

You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jamiehansen.