A college degree could be the key to helping children from low-income families enter the middle class. However, children of low-income families are also the demographic least likely to take advantage of opportunities offered by higher education, usually skipping college entirely. An initiative in Washington called the College Bound Scholarship Program seeks to change that.
The details of the scholarship program are deceptively simple. In 8th grade, participants are asked to commit to not only graduating high school but also to enroll in a college while staying out of trouble. For those who keep that pledge, the program will provide not only a full tuition college scholarship and cover expenses for room and board, but also give students a small book allowance to cover textbooks and other academic materials.
The program hopes to make a difference for a group that is typically underrepresented on college campuses around the country – children from family with a median income at or below the federal poverty line.
"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."
So far the results have been promising. According to The Spokesman-Review, 78% of last year's participants graduated high school on time, which places the group's graduation rate nearly 20% higher than the average low-income high school graduation rate in the state of Washington. Of the students graduating last year, nearly 17,000 signed up for the program initially and 6,900 of them went on to fulfill the on-time high school graduation requirement.
In total 4,700 scholarships were awarded – the difference being due either to the fact that the graduates fell out of the qualified income gap by the time they left high school or because they found alternative funding elsewhere.
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.