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Originally published Sunday, February 5, 2012 at 8:02 PM

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College Bound scholarship program could face test as more apply

The new College Bound Scholarship program helps pay for college for low-income students, but its supporters worry that the money may run dry.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

College Bound Scholarship

The College Bound Scholarship program is open to all Washington state residents who meet certain low-income criteria.

Middle-school students: Students sign up in seventh and eighth grade; the deadline is June 30 of the student's eighth-grade year. Income guidelines are available on the state's website, but generally, a student who qualifies for free- and reduced-price lunch, or whose family income is $41,000 or below for a family of four, meets the guidelines. All foster children are also eligible. For more information: www.hecb.wa.gov/PreparingForCollege/CollegeBound

Graduating seniors: Students must have signed the pledge in middle school, maintained a C (2.0) grade-point average or better, committed no felonies and filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to be eligible. Although the priority deadline for filling out the FAFSA was Feb. 1, state officials say seniors who are part of the College Bound program but haven't filled out the FAFSA yet still have time to do so.

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Jessica Virk knew she wanted to go to college but worried that her family wouldn't have the money to pay for it. In eighth grade, when she heard about the newly created state College Bound Scholarship program, she jumped at the chance to sign up.

"Knowing I could get my tuition and books paid for, I was like, 'Wow!' " said Virk, a senior at Kent-Meridian High School, who has seen her older sister struggle to pay the quarterly tuition at the University of Washington.

Virk, 18, is one of nearly 16,000 low-income high-school seniors statewide who were the first middle-school students to sign a pledge to keep at least a C average, stay out of legal trouble and apply for college and financial aid.

Last month, a third of those seniors completed their last requirement under the program, filling out the federal financial-aid form.

This fall, if their college application is accepted, their work will pay off.

The state of Washington will cover their cost to attend an in-state postsecondary school — a technical school, a community college or a four-year university — at public-school tuition rates, after other financial-aid awards are taken into account.

College Bound is estimated to cost $12 million over the next two years. But the number of students who have signed the College Bound pledge since its inception is growing, raising questions about whether the state will be able to find the money to pay for the program in the years ahead.

State Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, believes it's imperative. "This is something that actually does bend the trajectory on college participation and college-going," he said. "It drives people to attend college."

Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, says the state has "a moral responsibility to fund this. There's no way we can break that social contract."

The program works like this:

In middle school — either seventh or eighth grade — low-income students sign the College Bound pledge, which goes on file with the state Higher Education Coordinating Board (HECB). Middle-school students are targeted as a way to encourage them to stay in school and graduate.

"When the kids sign the pledge form, there's a certain amount of symbolism involved in that," said former state Sen. Phil Rockefeller, who sponsored the legislation in 2007 as a way to address the state's high-school dropout rate. In Washington, about three of every 10 public middle- and high-school students drop out of school.

Telling students in middle school that they may not have to worry about college costs is a big motivator.

"A lot of families don't think they have enough money for college," said Tami Breckenridge, a program officer for the Washington College Access Network, a group of community organizations that aims to improve preparation and access to higher education. "At a very early age, this says, 'Take that consideration off the table.' "

Low-income students already get substantial financial aid from the state and federal government and from private sources. In 2010-11, Washington students attending in-state schools received $1.2 billion in federal, state and private grant and scholarship money alone — 43 percent from federal Pell grants, 37 percent from private and campus grant/scholarship aid, and 20 percent from state grants. Grants do not need to be repaid.

Compared with those big grant programs, the College Bound Scholarship is a drop in the bucket. But it's an important drop. For students who qualify for financial aid but don't get enough to pay for all of their schooling, the scholarship will bridge that gap, said Deborah Wilds, president of the College Success Foundation, a nonprofit that helps low-income students finish high school and go on to college.

College Bound also gives students up to $500 a year for books. It does not help pay for living expenses.

The 16,000 students in the graduating class of 2012 who signed up for College Bound represented about 57 percent of those who were eligible. Since then, the sign-up rate has increased. About 75 percent of the eligible graduating class of 2015 signed the pledge, said Rachelle Sharpe, director of student financial assistance for the HECB.

The state expects two-thirds of the College Bound Scholarship students graduating this year will go to community and technical colleges.

Alyson Anica, a Kent-Meridian High senior, signed up for the program in seventh grade. She wants to get a degree in clinical psychology but knew her family couldn't afford the tuition at a four-year school.

"The only way I could think of was to take out a loan," said Anica, who plans to go to a community college and then transfer to Central Washington University.

Anica said the promise that her tuition would be paid, without the burden of taking on debt, was "extremely important" as she worked her way through high school.

Wilds said the program's supporters hope to show the Legislature this fall that the program is effective, and that it's a good investment.

Rockefeller had hoped the Legislature would put aside money every year for the College Bound program and invest it in the Guaranteed Education Tuition program, a prepaid college tuition program. But the state hasn't set aside any additional money since 2007, and Rockefeller worries that the state's budget crunch could affect the program during the next budget cycle, in 2013.

But Kilmer, the state senator, likens College Bound to a contractual obligation the state cannot breach.

Rockefeller said when the College Bound program passed the Legislature, some argued that the state should set a higher level of academic achievement than a C average. But he said the lower rate gives struggling students, the ones who are most likely to drop out, a reason to stay in school.

"This gives them a sense that there is a future out of high school," he said.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.

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