SOME low- and middle-income students struggling to afford college got a boost last year when the Washington Legislature teamed up with Microsoft and Boeing to create the Washington state Opportunity Scholarship.
The impact was immediate. More than 3,000 students enrolling in high-demand programs such as health care and technology at Washington public universities and colleges received awards of $1,000.
That amount is being substantially increased, to $5,000 per award for juniors and seniors. It is a welcome sign of the scholarship program’s intent to invest in students. The goal is not only to help students get to college, but also help them stay and earn a college degree. The scholarships are renewable, offering students significant and sustained support throughout their college experience.
This joint public and private effort is a creative model that ought to attract other companies. While Boeing and Microsoft have contributed $25 million each toward the endowment, the goal is to raise $1 billion by the end of the decade.
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Just as paying for school has many pieces, keeping students in college until they earn a degree requires concerted efforts. The U.S. has the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world, underscoring the magnitude of the problem.
A Harvard study found that just 56 percent of college students complete four-year degrees within six years. Only 29 percent of those starting two-year degrees finished them within three years, according to the 2011 study, called “Pathways to Prosperity.”
These findings are backed by statistics collected by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD warns that only about one in five young adults in the U.S. reaches a higher level of education than their parents — that’s among the lowest rates of upward mobility in the developed world.
The solution lies in understanding why students don’t complete college. Not being able to pay for college is the biggest challenge, which points to the value of financial-aid efforts such as the opportunity scholarship program.
The burden of student-loan debt is a related barrier. Students worried about racking up too much debt may be tempted to leave and work. A recent New York Times article alluded to a trend among college students dropping out to become the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, both of whom left school before completing a degree.
The reality is two-thirds of future jobs will require some college or career preparation. Students smart enough to believe they can leave college to launch the next Twitter are also smart enough to know they’ll need more education eventually.