Counselors have told middle-school students for years that it’s not too early to start planning for college.
They’ve got nothing on Bartolo Salazar’s mother.
“My mom is a really wise woman,” said Salazar, an eighth-grader at Chase Middle School. “She’s always telling me, get good grades, keep ‘em up. … Ever since I was little, Mom said I had to get good grades because nobody in my family has gone to college.”
Now the state of Washington is heeding the advice to start college planning early – launching a program that essentially guarantees tuition and books for seventh- and eighth-grade students from low-income families, providing they maintain good grades and stay out of trouble. Students like Salazar at middle schools are hearing about the program and preparing to apply by the June 1 deadline.
The idea is to get to students before they become convinced that, for whatever reason, college is not in their future, and give kids whose parents may not have college degrees the sense that a higher education is within reach.
“My goal is to help them see that education offers them a chance to have as much opportunity as they can, to leave as many doors open as possible,” said Kitty Hennessey, eighth-grade counselor at Chase.
The College-Bound Scholarship is one new program among several efforts passed by the last Legislature in an attempt to drive up the number of college graduates in Washington, particularly among “underrepresented” groups such as the poor and ethnic minorities. The scholarship is aimed at families who fall below 65 percent of the state’s median family income – for 2006 that’s $38,400 for a family of four, though for the purposes of the scholarship, the state will use the year of high school graduation to determine if students qualify.
The program promises to cover tuition and books not paid for by other forms of financial aid; most students who qualify for this program would also qualify for the state Need-Based Grant, and the new program will cover any gaps.
The program is estimated to cost $7.4 million for the first two years, starting in 2012.
In this, the first year, about 56,000 students meet income requirements for the program, according to the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board. It is students in this population that attend college in much lower numbers than students from wealthier families – the state estimates 72 percent of those students would not go to college if current patterns hold.
Ann Daley, executive director of the HEC Board, said in a news release the program means that “all children in Washington, regardless of family income, will have an opportunity to attend college.”
Mariah Eby says that academics weren’t a priority in her troubled family, until she moved in recently with her 24-year-old brother. Eby, a Chase eighth-grader, said her brother is struggling to get through his classes at community college after a late start.
“He’s like, ‘You have to go to college,’ ” Eby said. “He really wants me to go through Running Start. He wants me to take advanced classes so college won’t be as hard.”
Eby and a group of four other Chase students met with The Spokesman-Review last week to discuss college and the College-Bound program.
Nadine Quitugua said she’s seen members of her family struggle to get by and that she sees a college education as a way to make something of herself. Her parents don’t have degrees, but she says they push her to attend. She said that math and, lately, history are her favorite subjects.
“I’m getting into politics and all that, so it’s becoming more interesting to me,” she said.
Rhiannan Dozier’s mother was the only member of her family who attended college, and she did so as an older student with four kids. Dozier said that’s made a college education seem more within reach.
“I don’t know exactly what I want to do yet, but I know I want to go to college,” she said.
Sebastian Rinde said he hadn’t really considered college much until hearing of the program. Now he says he’s interested in becoming a writer, possibly attending Eastern Washington University.
And he’s absorbed the mantra that the College-Bound Scholarship and counselors like Hennessey are trying to get across.
“If you go to college it opens a lot of doors,” he said.
Salazar’s mom had him when she was a young teen, and she’s always emphasized that he needed to get good grades and scholarships to afford college. That was a common refrain among the students – the feeling that getting to college required overcoming a big financial obstacle.
He said that knowing the scholarship assistance is there will help him and others stay motivated to keep up their grades and move on to more education after high school.
“This is telling us to wake up and pay attention to what’s going on,” he said. “We’re not going to have another opportunity like this.”
The program is one of several new initiatives to help make college more accessible spawned by Gov. Chris Gregoire’s 2006 Washington Learns report. The state ranks 32nd nationally in the percentage of low-income students who go to college, and within 10 years, low-income students will represent a third of all high school graduates, the HEC Board says.
The program is modeled on one in Indiana, which has helped dramatically drive up college enrollments among the poor since 1990. Other states and colleges are beginning to look to ever earlier ways of encouraging students to attend college as well.
One reason for starting relatively early is to help battle perceptions. By eighth grade, students may already have decided their families can’t afford college, or they may simply not hear it treated as an expectation at home, experts say. Among the biggest factors in determining whether someone will attend college is simply whether their parents did.
So the program attempts to get younger students to begin seeing themselves in college. That’s beginning to happen with Eby, she said – partly because she’s watching her brother playing catch-up now.
“At age 22, I’ll be done with four years of college,” she said.