It isn’t enough that financial aid for college is available to low-income students. They have to know it’s available.
A new study by the nonprofit Urban Institute found that many low-income families aren’t aware of what aid is available, don’t know how to navigate the system and often overestimate how much college costs. But when they are made aware of what aid is available, a world of possibilities can open. And that can provide a powerful incentive for students from poor families to apply themselves to their studies.
That’s especially true if families become aware of what’s available while students are still in middle school, giving them time to plan and for students to start seriously focusing on the academic record they’ll need to gain admission to college.
A college education is one of the surer pathways to a better life. But fewer than half of students from low-income families go to college. Of those, 12 percent don’t apply for financial aid they’re eligible to receive. Often those students work one or two jobs to pay for tuition and expenses – decreasing their chances of college success and increasing their chances of dropping out.
The authors of the study, which was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, identified such federal programs as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid (which funds health care for the low-income) and the federal income tax filing process as the most promising ways for getting the financial aid message to parents because they intersect with so many eligible families.
Those are great ideas. But Tacoma is taking a different route, and it seems to be getting results.
In partnership with the University of Washington Tacoma, the city’s schools have been working to create a “college-going culture” beginning in kindergarten. It’s a culture that nurtures a belief in students that higher education is a very real possibility.
Getting a high school diploma is the first step. Improving the graduation rate is the primary goal of the Graduate! Tacoma initiative coordinated by the Foundation for Tacoma Students. It's a partnership among the Tacoma School District, United Way, First Five, the Boys & Girls Clubs, the Tacoma Housing Authority, the Children's Museum, and many more organizations and foundations.
Beyond instilling a goal to graduate, the partnership is educating students on their financial aid options. One important avenue is the state’s College Bound program, which pays for tuition and book costs for low-income students. But they have to sign up for it by eighth grade, keep a C average and stay out of trouble.
One of the virtues of College Bound is that it focuses kids’ attention on higher education at the very age they begin seriously thinking about their future.
Knowing the rules early helps increase the pool of eligible students and provides incentives for keeping their eyes on the prize – higher education. Other communities would do well to look at how Tacoma is increasing its graduation rate while motivating kids to get ready for college.