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A college education is more valuable than ever, yet a few years ago, experts concluded that over the course of this decade, more than four million high school graduates would not go to college because of money. As tuition costs have climbed dramatically, financial aid has not, but there are efforts across the country to address costs and other barriers to higher education. As we conclude our series on alternatives to the college admissions game, NPR's Wendy Kaufman explores the money problem in one state.

WENDY KAUFMAN: Franklin High School, one of Seattle's oldest, lies just a few miles south of downtown. Built nearly 100 years ago in a grand neoclassical style, it was an architectural and educational showcase. But that was then. Today, roughly 20 percent 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.

Ms. COURTNEY JOHNSON (Sophomore, Franklin High School): When I was younger, everybody talked about how they were going to college when they're younger, but then you start realizing like what you have to go through to get there, it's like you start thinking in your head, oh, maybe I'm not going to go because it's too much.

KAUFMAN: Sophomore Courtney Johnson loves to sing, dance and hopes to be famous, and despite the money challenges, she plans to go to college. But, she says, many of her friends have already abandoned the idea of higher education.

Ms. JOHNSON: Somebody tells you, oh, you have to do this, you have to do that. You have to have this much. You have to - and you start thinking in your head am I going to have that? Am I going to be able to pay for the college?

KAUFMAN: Average tuition, room and board at public universities is now nearly $13,000 a year, and it's a lot more at private schools. With scholarships declining and loans getting more expensive, there's a growing money gap for many families. Moreover, 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 kids who don't really need it, leaving less for those who do. And not graduating from college means a lot less earning power, perhaps a million dollars over a lifetime. All of this is troubling to Mark Emmert, president of the University of Washington.

Mr. MARK EMMERT (President, University of Washington): If we want people to move from lower socio-economic status up the economic rungs, you've got to get them in school, and you've got to get them out with degrees, and we can't let financial barriers stand in the way of that. It would really be foolish of us.

KAUFMAN: So Emmert started a program called Husky Promise. Beginning this fall, low and moderate income students will get receive free tuition at the state's premier public institution. A family of four could make up to $46,500 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, many students may opt for private schools. At a coffee shop across the street from Seattle University, a private Jesuit school, we meet Seattle U junior Axum Aragawi.

Ms. AXUM ARAGAWI (Junior, Seattle University): I applied to two schools. I applied to the University of Washington and Seattle University. I got into both, and Seattle University's financial aid package was way better than U Dub.

KAUFMAN: It may surprise you to learn that although private schools typically cost more, they sometimes offer far better scholarship opportunities.

Ms. ARAGAWI Seattle University is like, you know, $30,000. I ended up getting like everything at SU and like half for U Dub.

KAUFMAN: Of course low income students with less stellar grades might not fare so well. In short, getting money and weighing options can be complicated. Kids often need help navigating through the process, and that's where Kevin Washington comes in.

Mr. KEVIN WASHINGTON (YMCA Black Achievers Club): We're going to go ahead and get started with today's session.

KAUFMAN: As chairman of the local YMCA's Black Achievers Club, Washington spends lots of time in high school classrooms after school talking to kids, even cajoling them to work hard, aim high and go to college. On this day, he's brought in a guest speaker, and before she begins, he reminds the students in Room 208 at Franklin High that everyone connected with the program is here to help them get into college and find the money they need.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Please, please, please, if you have questions or you're having trouble, here is an expert on the whole process, so please take advantage of Liane being here and ask her all the questions that you need.

One thing the students have learned is that while many college kids are financially strapped, millions and millions of scholarship dollars go unclaimed. Indeed, last year the Achievers themselves had too few applicants. They were offering 10 scholarships, but only seven students applied.

Kevin Washington, who's been working with African-American kids for more than two decades, says he's worried about their future.

Mr. WASHINGTON: What they don't have is peer pressure and cultural pressure to succeed. It's still not cool to be a good student, and that manifests itself really, really strongly within poor and cadres of students of color.

KAUFMAN: 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 them it's not that simple. The government's most recent figures suggest the odds of earning a bachelor's degree within six years after beginning at a community college are extremely low.

Amoon Mohamed, a senior in Franklin's Black Achiever program, plans to start at a four-year school and intends to be the first in her family to graduate.

Ms. AMOON MOHAMED (Student, Franklin High School): The programs that we're in right now, they help you in detail, like maybe a counselor will tell you a couple of things, but she really maybe doesn't even know a lot of it. And then like our parents can't help us out. Most of us are first generation, like my parents. We just came to America in 2000. So like I have to put all the pressure on myself.

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

Ms. MIMI BELAY (Student, Franklin High School): They give it to you and it's your job to utilize their information, and they pretty much open the door. It's our responsibility to walk through it. So without them, I just would have been locked out.

KAUFMAN: Across the country, similar initiatives are underway. A few other state schools offer free or very low tuition. Many of the elite privates 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 and younger students for assistance in getting into college and graduating.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.

ROBERTS: To hear the other pieces in our series, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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