The evidence is anecdotal, but the personal stories are powerful: A new state program that pays higher-education costs for low-income students is encouraging more of them to finish high school and enter college.
In its first year of paying for college, the program, called College Bound, did much better than expected.
In fact, so many low-income students were admitted to four-year schools through the program that it will soon be out of money, using up in one year the $12 million lawmakers set aside for it in 2007 — a sum that was supposed to last two years.
Now, 118,000 low-income students across the state who signed up for College Bound are eligible to receive scholarship money in the next five years, and the Legislature must find millions of dollars this biennium to keep the program going.
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Though money remains tight this session, legislators don’t foresee a problem funding the program for the next two years, given the results it is producing. But it’s hard to know whether that attitude might change if College Bound grows exponentially, as it seems poised to do, by the end of the decade.
“I think we’ve got a real winner,” said Bob Craves, the co-founder, chair and CEO of the nonprofit College Success Foundation (CSF), which administers the program. When the Legislature created College Bound in 2007, “I couldn’t believe they’d done something this terrific,” said Craves, one of the founding officers of Costco.
The program made all the difference to Charles Armstead, who was flailing in his 10th-grade year at Cleveland High School until college-prep adviser Logan Reichert told him that if he could improve his grades, College Bound would pay for a lot of his schooling.
Armstead, 18, only vaguely remembered signing up for the program in middle school. But once he realized it could be his ticket to college, “my whole life changed,” he said.
Middle-school students sign a pledge to keep at least a C average, stay out of legal trouble and apply for college and financial aid. Low-income students already can get substantial financial aid from the state and federal government and from private sources. College Bound also gives students up to $500 a year for books. Grants do not need to be repaid.
His counselor helped him map out a plan to improve his grades, and after graduation, he enrolled at Seattle Central Community College. He’s planning to transfer to Eastern Washington University and major in engineering.
He’s one of about 3,800 Washington students who are receiving College Bound money this year, the first group to graduate from high school after signing up years earlier.
An additional 3,000 are enrolled in college but either received other awards or are no longer eligible, said Rachelle Sharpe, director of student-financial assistance for the Washington State Student Achievement Council.
Craves believes College Bound is going to reap another benefit that’s almost as important as getting kids into college — motivating them to at least finish high school.
Only about 65 percent of low-income students graduate on time in Washington, according to state research. The state superintendent and the Student Achievement Council are compiling data to figure out whether College Bound is having an impact on that rate.
“We are anxiously awaiting this data,” Craves said. “We feel it’s going to be extremely strong.”
In the coming years, College Bound is expected to grow significantly because counselors have been so successful at getting students to sign up — from 56 percent of eligible students five years ago to 78 percent last year.
They are impressive gains. Yet in an era when state money for college costs is in such short supply, that growth gives some people pause.
“Everybody who’s looking at the program is a little nervous,” said John Steiger, executive director of the Caseload Forecast Council. The council forecasts entitlement caseloads, and College Bound was recently added to the council’s list.
“We’re going to need more money, but we don’t know how much more,” said Steiger, who said state officials were taken by surprise that half the students in College Bound were accepted into a four-year school. Administrators thought two-thirds would go to community college or technical school.
Compared with other college-aid programs, College Bound is small — it promises to pay what’s left of the in-state tuition bill after all other grants and scholarships are added up. “It’s a gap-filler, if you will,” Sharpe said.
The State Need Grant, which is the state’s largest aid program — and which serves many of the same students — costs $300 million this fiscal year. The two programs are entwined — if the state put more money into the State Need Grant, it might need less for College Bound.
Former Gov. Chris Gregoire put $35 million in her budget for College Bound for the coming biennium, and $600 million for State Need Grant. Gov. Jay Inslee has not yet created a budget.
Indiana is the only other state that makes a promise like College Bound to its low-income students. Susan Pollack, a spokesman for the College Success Foundation, said College Bound has drawn praise from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Reaches out early
A staff of nine College Bound counselors promote the program in every school district in the state, and they say they’ve seen College Bound take off in the past few years.
“It spreads across the whole school, everybody gets invested, they put up banners that say ‘We are College Bound,’” said Leiann DeVelder, a College Bound adviser in Snohomish County. “It’s really exciting to watch.”
They say one of the smartest aspects of the program is that it first reaches students in middle school, rather than high school, where it can be too late for a failing student to catch up.
The counselors say they’ve met parents and grandparents who put the College Bound certificate on the refrigerator door, a daily reminder of the promise made by both the students and the state.
Some schools have created a College Bound club. In other communities, a low-income housing authority or a nonprofit like the YMCA has publicized the program and helped students apply for financial aid.
State Rep. Larry Seaquist, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee, would like to find money to hire more counselors in middle school, high school and college to help students stay on track.
“To me, College Bound — with full counseling — is the core of what we have to do as a state” to improve educational achievement, the Gig Harbor Democrat said.
For Armstead, the freshman at Seattle Central, College Bound made all the difference.
“That was my turning point in high school — that’s when I started taking school seriously,” he said. “Before then, I didn’t think about college at all.”
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219
On Twitter: @katherinelong.