Promise of free college offers hope to poor students

The News TribuneMarch 17, 2014 

The College Bound Scholarship – a promise of higher education for low-income middle-schoolers – is smart in theory. It’s turning out to be a smart in the real world as well.

The program is based on the fact that students from poor families start to take their destinies in their own hands in the seventh and eighth grades.

That’s when kids start charting their academic futures – as potential college students, as high school-only grads, or as dropouts. Even those who aspire to higher education can wind up washing out if they don’t take such demanding subjects as advanced algebra, science and foreign languages. If their parents never went to college, students often don’t discover the requirements until it’s too late.

Enter College Bound. Approved by the Legislature seven years ago, the program offers a pact to low-income seventh- and eighth-graders. The deal: If they stay out of trouble with the law, take the right courses and earn admission to college, they are guaranteed tuition (at public university rates) plus $500 a year for books.

The idea behind this and similar scholarship promises is to plant expectations in the minds of kids who may think they can’t afford college – or who may not have thought much about higher education in the first place.

The first Washington class to be offered the College Bound pact graduated in 2012. The numbers have now been crunched, and the early returns are promising.

According to a newly released report, 73 percent of the grads who had made the commitment as middle-schoolers went on to some form of post-high school education last year. That compares to 78 percent of their more affluent classmates. In other words, many of these poor kids may be catching up with the middle class.

Tacoma Public Schools has seen an exciting spike of its own, measured in graduation rates. Of the district’s Class of 2013, 77 percent of College Bound students earned their diplomas. Of their low-income classmates who didn’t participate, only 49 percent made it to commencement. For a district with a student poverty rate of 63 percent, the implications are obvious.

This isn’t all about College Bound. Tacoma has been pushing college in many other ways. But the promise of free tuition – backed up by an open invitation to enroll at the University of Washington Tacoma – makes the path to academic success much clearer.

The tuition pledge itself may be less important than other hope-building services wrapped around it, including career coaching, mentoring, college-awareness assemblies and tracking of individual students. In Tacoma, the College Success Foundation – a public-private partnership – has been leading efforts to make the tuition promise a reality for students.

Hope is a powerful motivator. Any program that can lift students’ sense of their own potential is a godsend for public education.

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