State scholarship program warrants close scrutiny

June 19, 2012 

A lucky group of high school seniors was the first recipient of a well-intentioned program that pays the cost of tuition and books for low-income students seeking a higher education.

We say lucky because, frankly, the standards aren't all that high for our state's College Bound Scholarship program. Students have to register for the program while in middle school, then maintain a 2.0 grade-point average, have no criminal record and apply for financial aid with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) while seniors in high school.

So, if you're from a low-income family and stay out of jail, maintain a C average and fill out an application, you could get a big chunk of your college expenses paid for. That sounds like a deal no one should pass up.

But they do. Fewer than half of the 2,600 eligible students in Benton and Franklin counties have registered for the program. They must sign-up by June 30 of their eighth-grade year to participate.

The program started in 2007, and the eighth-graders in that first crop graduate this spring and start collecting their scholarships in the fall. Twenty seniors from Kiona-Benton City High School were awarded the scholarships earlier this month worth $1 million.

But the true value is far greater than the expense of college tuition, though that is a daunting amount of money these days and something to truly be thankful for if a scholarship is achieved.

Study after study has proved that college graduates earn more over a lifetime. And offering an incentive to a child of meager means an opportunity to attend college is certain to put an otherwise unobtainable dream within reach for some deserving kids.

Judging from some statistics on how many kids have signed onto the program, it appears that the rate is directly tied to the level of encouragement from teachers and administrators.

Some schools with high rates of registrations have held special informational nights, made calls to parents or had representatives from the Washington State University GEAR UP program on campus during recent middle school parent-teacher conferences. Educating the parents is key to bringing students into the program.

Almost 100 percent of the eligible eighth-graders at Ki-Be have signed up, and 80 percent at Stevens Middle School in Pasco. Columbia-Burbank will have almost all of its kids who meet the criteria on board as well, while fewer than half of the 125 at Park Middle School in Kennewick who could be eligible have joined the program.

It seems sad that so many people would leave that kind of money on the table, especially those who so obviously need it. The money can be used at community colleges and technical schools, as well as in-state public universities.

Some other continuing education programs that aren't usually funded by scholarships are covered as well. And even if your household income is beyond the eligibility levels, it's not verified until the student's senior year. We all know circumstances can change in five years.

It's obvious the program has many generous perks and provides money to students whose families can't afford to send them to college.

But we'd like to see a plan for tracking the students who receive the scholarships through their secondary education and beyond.

It's a lot of money that could be put to other uses -- holding down tuition costs for middle-class students, for example. Let's make certain the program is working as intended.

How readily are C-average students admitted to state universities these days? And how do C-average students fare in the much tougher academic environment that comes with higher education? What kind of success and failure rates do those participating in the program have after a year? Two years? Four years? Ten?

With money so tight in our state's budget, we want to make sure it's dedicated to those who appreciate it and put it to work.

That being said, if you have an eighth-grader, it would be a good idea to get him or her signed up for this program, especially if your child seems headed for trouble.

Having a college education on the line might just be a good enough incentive to keep them out of jail and keep their grades average or above for the next four years.

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