Cera Foster has everything planned out.
The 14-year-old at Park Middle School wants eventually to go into law enforcement. She said she knows she'll need to study criminal justice to do that, and that means going to college, so signing up for a full-ride to a public Washington university through the College Bound Scholarship program was a no-brainer.
"It just means being able to get ahead," the eighth-grader said of getting a college education.
The program covers tuition and book costs for qualifying, low-income students who pursue higher education in state.
This year's graduating seniors were the first to be awarded money from the program since it was implemented in 2007.
Students have to sign up for the program by June 30 of their eighth-grade year. And so far, fewer than half of the almost 2,600 qualified eighth-graders in Educational Service District 123, including Benton and Franklin counties, have signed up.
Educators said they've struggled to get students signed up, partially because parents don't understand the program, but also because some middle school students have said they've already decided they're not going to college after high school.
"They don't understand the bridge from high school to college," said Becky Wilson, grant manager for the Washington State University GEAR UP program in the Kiona-Benton City School District.
The scholarship program is overseen by the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board. Scholarships are provided to qualifying students who maintain at least a 2.0 GPA, have no criminal record and apply for financial aid by filing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, their senior year in high school.
The program covers tuition costs at most in-state public universities, colleges, trade schools and similar programs not covered by any other grants or scholarships a student received. The scholarship even can be used at in-state private colleges and universities, but only will provide the average cost of tuition for public universities.
Educators said the value of the scholarship is immense, both in terms of what it means for a student's future career and earnings and what it means in tuition.
Wilson said 20 seniors who graduated from Kiona-Benton City High School last weekend were awarded College Bound scholarships valued at a total of $1 million.
However, less than half of the eligible 125 eighth-graders at Park Middle School in Kennewick have signed up and counselor Leslie Kroum, said she is working to reach the rest before school is out today.
Closer to 100 percent of eligible eighth-graders are signed up at Ki-Be, while about 80 percent of eligible eighth-graders at Stevens Middle School in the Pasco School District are signed up. But that's not without a lot of effort, including classroom presentations, calls to parents and making it part of required paperwork for students to go on field trips to visit a college campus.
Julianne Hedden with the GEAR UP program in the Columbia-Burbank School District said she expected to have close to all of her district seventh- and eighth-graders signed up by the end of the week, but that came after a special presentation. She said she'd be making calls to parents by Thursday if students had still neglected to turn them in.
Educators said not all parents understand the program or don't think their child will qualify. They still encourage students to sign up, as the income qualification isn't verified until students are seniors.
"Once it's explained to them, (parents) are more than happy to fill it out," Wilson said.
But there are students who actively have decided they won't go to college. Kroum said she can't force students to sign up, but reminds even those who aren't considering college that they can always reject the scholarship later. They also can use it for other educational programs, such as a Washington community or technical college.
"It's frustrating for me for kids to make the decision they don't want to go to college when they don't know how they'll feel about it as a senior," she said.
Cera said she would be the first of her seven siblings to attend college should she keep up her grades and stay out of trouble. She said she knows some other eighth-graders who haven't signed up for the program but added that even if she doesn't go into law enforcement, she knows from researching jobs for school projects the ones she's interested in require a college degree.
"I think you're being kind of thick if you're saying you don't need to go to college," Foster said.