Paving a Path for Poor Students' College Dreams

This is the final report in a seven-part series.

Franklin High School is a faded beauty. Built near downtown Seattle nearly 100 years ago in a grand neo-classical style, the school was once an architectural and educational showcase.

Today, roughly one in five of its 1,500 students won't graduate. And with many students living in poverty or close to it, Franklin is a place where dreams often die.

"When I was younger, everybody talked about going to college," says sophomore Courtney Johnson, who hopes to go, too.

But then the obstacles come to mind, she says, "And you think, 'Maybe I'm not going to go.'" She adds: "You start thinking in your head, 'How am I going to pay for college?' "

Trying to Make Costs More Manageable

Over a lifetime, people with a college degree can expect to earn as much as $1 million more than those with only a high-school diploma.

But millions of high-school graduates won't earn that degree because of money. In recent years, tuition costs have climbed dramatically, while financial aid has not. Average tuition, room and board at public universities is now nearly $13,000 a year, and much more at private schools. As scholarships decline and loans get more expensive, the money gap for many families is growing.

Meanwhile, as colleges seek more prestige and higher rankings, many are emphasizing scholarships based on high grades and test scores, not financial need. Money goes to students who don't really need it, leaving less for those who do.

All of this is troubling to Mark Emmert, president of the University of Washington.

"If we want people to move up the economic social ladder, we have to get them into school and get them out with degrees," he says. "We can't let economics stand in the way of that. It would really be foolish of us."

Emmert started a program called Husky Promise. Beginning this fall, low- and moderate-income students will receive free tuition at the state's premier public institution. A family of four could make up to $46,500 a year and still be eligible. As many as 5,000 students a year are expected to take advantage of the program. The state's other research university, Washington State, has a similar package.

Still, some students may opt for private schools, which typically cost more but sometimes offer far better scholarship opportunities. That's what Seattle University junior Axum Aragawi did. She had also applied to the University of Washington.

"Seattle U. is, like, $30,000," Aragawi says. "I ended up getting everything at S.U. and only half at U.W."

Raising Expectations

Of course, low-income students with less-stellar grades might not fare so well. Getting financial aid and weighing options can be complicated. Students often need help navigating the process.

As chairman of the local YMCA's Black Achievers Club, Kevin Washington spends lots of time in high schools talking to students after hours. He cajoles them to work hard, aim high and attend college. The program is open to all, but on a typical day, fewer than two dozen show up.

The students have learned that, while many college kids are financially strapped, millions of scholarship dollars go unclaimed. Indeed, last year the Achievers themselves were offering 10 scholarships, but only seven students applied.

Washington has worked with African-American students for more than two decades. He worries that minority students lack the "peer and cultural pressure to succeed."

"It's still not cool to be good at school," he says, "and that manifests itself really strongly among the poor and cadres of students of color."

Often, students of color and those with low incomes are encouraged to enroll in community college as a less expensive way to begin their studies. But Washington warns it's not that simple. The government's most recent figures suggest the odds of earning a bachelor's degree within six years of beginning at a community college are extremely low.

Navigating the Aid Process

Amoon Mohamed, a senior in Franklin High's Black Achievers program, plans to start at a four-year school. She would be the first in her family to graduate.

"The programs we are in right now, they help you in detail," she says, adding, "A counselor might tell you a couple of things, but she might not really know it in detail, and our parents can't help. Most of us are first generation. My parents came to America in 2000. So I have to put all the pressure on myself."

Another college-bound senior, Mimi Belay, adds that before she started the program, she had no clue about how the process worked.

"It's just your job to utilize the information," she says of the help that Black Achievers provides. "They pretty much open the door. Without them, I would have been locked out."

Across the country, similar initiatives are under way. A few other state schools offer free or very low tuition. Many of the elite private schools automatically offer full scholarships to those with financial need. And with so much on the line in terms of a young person's economic future, community activists are targeting younger students for assistance in getting into college and graduating.

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