Study after study shows that a college degree is the best chance for low-income students to improve their lives. But those students may feel powerless to make college a reality.
A Washington scholarship program targeting low-income students is making a difference.
Called the College Bound Scholarship Program, it asks students to pledge by the end of eighth grade that they will graduate from high school and stay out of trouble along the way. If they succeed, the program pays college tuition and fees, plus a small book allowance. It’s meant to help students whose median family income is at or below the poverty line at sign-up as well as upon graduation.
“Before, I really didn’t think I’d be able to go to college, but I really wanted to. I thought to myself: My parents can’t afford it. I signed up because I wanted it to help me go to college,” said Cody Evans, a Shadle Park High School senior. “It’s going to help me worry less about the financial end of college. I’ll be able to focus on my education.”
Data shows students are responding to the promise. More than 78 percent of low-income students enrolled in the program graduated on time last year, according to the Washington Student Achievement Council. That’s almost 19 percentage points higher than the on-time graduation rate of low-income students not enrolled in the program.
Evans plans to attend Washington State University in the fall, where he’ll study psychology. The 17-year-old hopes to continue on to the University of Washington for a graduate degree in early-childhood education. The class of 2013 is the second graduating class to have had the opportunity to enroll in the College Bound Scholarship Program, which began in 2007. Evans is one of 569 College Bound scholars who graduated from Spokane Public Schools this year.
Of last year’s class, 16,947 students signed up statewide in seventh grade, and about 6,900 went on to enroll in college. About 4,700 received the scholarship, according to state officials; those who didn’t usually exceeded the income limits at graduation or received other state aid to cover tuition.
Since the program’s inception, recruitment and retention has been state officials’ focus. The Washington Student Achievement Council works with K-12 schools, state agencies, nonprofit organizations and college access groups to enroll eligible students.
In the first two years, school districts signed up about 57 percent of qualifying students, said Rachelle Sharpe, director of student financial assistance at the Washington Student Achievement Council. “Since then, every sign-up has been bigger. Last year, we had signed up 79 percent of students who qualified,” she said.
At times, convincing parents and guardians is the key to recruiting students.
“My grandpa asked me to apply,” said Bethany Haffner, who works full-time at Wendy’s to support herself while attending On Track Academy, a Spokane Public Schools credit-retrieval program. “I figured it would help.”
She said it has helped her: “It keeps you on track, keep your grades up and keeps you out of trouble.”
Since the scholarship program began, 138,000 statewide have signed up, Sharpe said. The deadline for this year is June 30, however, so that number could go up.
Students who enroll in the program not only are assured tuition dollars for 68 qualifying Washington institutions, they also receive support services, such as career counseling, college campus tours, financial aid workshops and help in applying for additional scholarships.
This year, to help ease the transition from high school to college, Spokane Public Schools will give its students a chance to visit campuses and learn basics such as where to buy books, eat lunch or hang out to study.
Takwona Davis, who graduates from the Community School today, is proud to be among those students.
The teen, who is raising her 11-year-old niece, knew in middle school she’d need help if she wanted to go to college, financially and behaviorally.
“It helps with kids staying out of trouble until they get the grant. Where I grew up, it was pretty hard not to get into trouble,” said Davis, who grew up on the lower South Hill and in West Central. “It was like a wake-up call, really. You want to stay in a good area and go on with your life instead of pay for your consequences.”