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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Scholarship initiative targets cost, as well as maze of other obstacles

Central Valley School District Superintendent Ben Small leads a tour of new Ridgeline High School in Liberty Lake on Aug. 10. Small announced on Tuesday he will leave the school district at the end of this school year.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Central Valley School District Superintendent Ben Small leads a tour of new Ridgeline High School in Liberty Lake on Aug. 10. Small announced on Tuesday he will leave the school district at the end of this school year. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

If you’re familiar with the FAFSA – the federal form to apply for financial aid for college – then this may not surprise you.

But, when considering the reason that our state falls so far below most others in terms of how many high school graduates go on to college and how many earn a degree, it all starts with the FAFSA and how few students actually fill one out.

Fewer Washington high school students file a FAFSA – the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is a requirement for virtually all sources of student aid – than almost any other state. We rank 48th in the percentage of students filing one, at 37% for the current year, according to the College Promise Coalition.

And that comes after years of improvement on this front in Washington.

This seeds further sorry statistics – at least they’re sorry if you think young people benefit from a college education, as I do. We have lagged well behind the national average for high school graduates going on to college, even after more than a decade of improvement on this measure. We rank 46th, with 53% of graduates going directly to college from high school.

Between 2010 and 2020, fall headcount enrollments at Washington colleges fell 21%, state statistics show, even as the population of young people increased modestly. Then, when the pandemic came along and helped tank college enrollments all over, ours tanked more than average: dropping 13% compared to the national average of 7%.

Of those who do go to college in Washington, about 4 in 10 earn a degree.

These challenges have befuddled leaders in the state for many years and have inspired various efforts to make progress. They’re also the context for a promising new project in Eastern Washington – the new Launch NW program that plans to cover the costs of college or workforce training for young people in the region.

Launch NW, an initiative of the Innovia Foundation, is raising $150 million to fund the program, which would begin issuing scholarships in 2024. The goal is to provide every child in the foundation’s 20-county region a pathway toward a degree or credential, providing “last-dollar” funding for their education – which means it will cover unmet costs once grants, scholarships and other forms of aid are considered.

But Ben Small, the retiring superintendent of Central Valley School District who will run the program, says that it plans to provide more than just a scholarship.

It also plans to bring various community partners together to help in the effort and help students navigate the bureaucratic maze of programs that offer assistance – an often daunting labyrinth that begins with the FAFSA.

“School districts can’t solve this alone,” Small said. “Having a program that says, ‘Let’s bring everybody together to solve what’s become a persistent problem in Washington,’ ” is the goal of Launch NW.

Small said that it’s important to “knit together” all the various services available to help students and families negotiate the complex and sometimes confusing pathway toward getting a degree or workforce training credential.

Similar initiatives have been launched in other cities such as Buffalo and Cleveland. The Say Yes to Buffalo campaign has awarded $7 million in aid to more than 5,000 students over the last seven years. The program helped increase post-secondary degree completion by 3% for Buffalo students since 2012, according to the program’s annual report from 2020-21.

If that seems modest, consider that it is 10 times higher than the increase in degree completion nationwide.

Launch NW is being pushed as a program focused on the workforce and the economy. Around three-quarters of job openings in the region require some educational or training credential. The gap between that figure and the number of young people who now receive such a credential is a problem for those individuals, whose likelihood of living in poverty is great, and for the overall economy.

“That means if we don’t do something differently and break down barriers to post-secondary education, we’re going to have to import talent to make the economy run,” Small said.

A college education is valuable for reasons beyond workforce training, of course. It helps people understand the world more deeply – scientifically, historically, artistically – and it can help develop critical-thinking skills for a world awash in information but lacking in knowledge.

But we have created a nightmare scenario for young people – a dynamic in which generations of adults, who had easier, more affordable access to a degree, have foisted absurd and life-altering financial burdens onto the young just as they are beginning their adult lives.

You would never design a system this way. We got here on the boiled-frog plan – an arms race among colleges to provide ever-escalating amenities, build a massive bureaucratic edifice, subsidize athletic excess and raise tuition dramatically to make up for the erosion of state support.

Sources of student aid have not remotely kept up, but student loans have become a booming business.

An inch at a time, the experience became massively unaffordable and bureaucratically opaque.

And the doorway into that system is the FAFSA, a process seemingly designed by Rube Goldberg – and yet it’s the vital first step for obtaining financial aid.

Small said that one possibility that a project such as Launch NW might undertake is pulling in more community partners to help young people file and families file their FAFSAs. Maybe banks and credit unions could offer FAFSA help to families, he suggested. Employers might provide such help for its workers.

However such ideas play out, what’s important, he said, is that every student have a path toward that credential and that the whole community engage in making that happen. Helping with the first step would be just one way of helping with the entire journey.

“Our mission is credential attainment,” he said. “Our mission is degree attainment.”

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