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Originally published Sunday, March 23, 2014 at 8:00 PM

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Lifting students over barriers to higher education

Access to a college education gets harder even as the need for higher eduction grows.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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My son is on track to earning his college degree in a couple of months, and my wife and I can exhale. He will have earned one of the keys to success in America.

More families should be able to share our pride and pleasure, but as getting a college education becomes more essential — as an economic tool, and more important as a way to improve one’s station in life — it gets more expensive and less accessible.

By 2018, 60 percent of job openings will require a college education, according to a 2010 Georgetown University study. The country needs people qualified to fill those jobs, and young people, especially those who aspire to a financially secure future, will need college preparation.

I’m thinking about young people who would be the first in their families to attend college, students for whom the road to the middle class and beyond seems steeper than a generation ago. Money and pro-college hurdles both play a role in limiting access.

Here’s the first paragraph of a story that ran in The Seattle Times on Thursday:

“America’s colleges and universities are quietly shifting the burden of their big tuition increases onto low-income students, while many higher-income families are seeing their college costs rise more slowly or even fall, an analysis of federal data shows.”

Washington is one of the states in which the poorest students at public universities have not seen greater increases than the wealthiest. But even so, the poorest students at the University of Washington saw an increase of $2,819 over the past four years. For families who are already struggling, that’s significant.

My wife and I were able to pay for our son’s education, and we could do that because we both got help paying for ours when we needed it. College was a doorway out of poverty for me, so it concerns me to see that door closing even a bit.

I had the pleasure of spending Friday evening with people who give students who might not otherwise go to college a boost in that direction. It’s a neighborhood project that started with a few friends seeing a problem and deciding to do something about it.

The Mount Baker Community Club’s Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarships program has been going and growing for 30 years now. I wrote about it on its 25th anniversary, when its chairman was Jerry Morales, who was one of the early scholarship winners.

The initial idea was to give a lift to students who were neither rich nor poor, who were good students, but not super achievers — regular kids who face difficult challenges. And it targeted African American students because of the opportunity disparities that were obvious in the diverse neighborhood.

The scholarship amounts grew and the program expanded to cover all of Southeast Seattle and all racial and ethnic minority groups. Low-income students from all races could use more help, and there are programs elsewhere with other criteria, but it is still the case that some low-income groups face more challenges than others.

Friday, before the scholarship dinner, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a report that black students are more than four times, and Latino students twice as likely, as white students to attend schools where teachers do not meet all state teaching requirements.

The report also found that students in those groups are more likely to attend high schools where Algebra II courses and chemistry classes are not offered. That reduces college readiness, as do the highly disproportionate suspension rates that exist even in pre-K classrooms.

It will take more than the kindness and generosity of neighbors to solve those systemic problems. But this year there are 21 more students who know they’ll be headed to college in the fall thanks to Mount Baker and people who see the benefits of expanding opportunities.

A report a week ago about a larger program said low-income students who participate in Washington’s College Bound scholarship program are going to college at nearly the same rate as richer students. The program offers tuition and book money to students who sign up in middle school, maintain good grades and stay out of trouble.

It’s not just the money that helps. The program seems to encourage students to choose college and to stick with it once they are there.

We’ll need all of those young minds in 2018 and beyond, and I keep hoping that when we see what young people can achieve with a little help around the obstacles, maybe we’ll be more motivated to attack the barriers directly.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays. | 206-464-3346

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