Scholarships that keep students in the high school race

Dangle aid money sooner

High school graduations are around the corner, and that means education officials are preparing thousands of scholarships to award to graduates. They are like volunteers at the famed Boston Marathon finish line, who congratulate the finishers and hand out water and heat sheets to those who have stayed the course. But imagine a Boston Marathon where half of the runners disappear during the race and never reach the finish line. Sadly, this is what happens in many of our cities as a large percentage of students drop out long before graduation

How is it possible in our “show me the money” society that billions of scholarship dollars can’t motivate low-income kids to stay in school?  Last June, Chelsea gave out $173,000 in awards at its 2010 graduation. The state and federal government gave away millions more. Yet none of this money could stop half the class from missing graduation — they had already dropped out.  This story was repeated at ceremonies in other low-income communities across the state – Boston, Lawrence, Brockton, New Bedford, Worcester, Springfield, and others.

If the scholarship money available to these underserved students wasn’t enough to pay for college, it would make sense that they would give up hope altogether. But each low-income student who qualifies for the full needs-based federal Pell Grant gets $5,500 a year. This is supplemented by state aid, work study, and tax credits, all of which total $13,000 – the tuition at most state colleges. And even if these students need additional aid beyond that, they will still have to borrow only a fraction of what middle-class students typically do.

Americans are justifiably proud of their scholarship system, which recognizes athletes, scholars, musicians, and volunteers, and makes it possible for those with limited means to get a college education.  You would think that the very existence of this system would inspire potential dropouts to stay in school. It doesn’t.  So how can we make the system motivate would-be dropouts while maintaining all of its other strengths?

Rather than present scholarships as surprise awards at the end of high school, why not reposition them as goals at the beginning of high school, or even middle school? Study after study shows that early knowledge of scholarships is essential to behavioral results, so by promoting scholarships early, we can motivate students to stay in school and achieve. Furthermore, when parents learn that college is within their financial reach, they are more likely to save for it and encourage their children to study. Hope motivates parents.  A recent study by the Harvard Family Research Project cites over 40 years of research to confirm that family engagement improves school readiness, student academic achievement, and graduation rates.  

Marketing is also essential to making this aspirational scholarship system successful.  Just as the US Army developed “Be all that you can be” ads to woo new recruits during the Super Bowl, every high school should hang banners proclaiming: “Graduate in Four Years and Grab the Money on the Way Out.”

But a marketing campaign alone is not enough. Scholarships need organization and transparency. The Obama administration simplified the application process for Pell Grants last year, but millions of private scholarships also exist, each with their own conditions. There is no comprehensive listing of scholarships in the United States. Cities and towns often refuse to list the scholarships they award. Families might as well read the obituaries to learn of new scholarships created to honor those who have died.

Low-income families need guides to navigate this complex system.  But guidance counselors serve up to 300 students, and are far more focused on those likely to go to college than those who aren’t. We should consider outsourcing much of the guidance function to community agencies that focus on college access. Access, Bottom Line, the Boston Private Industry Council, TERI College Planning, to name a few, excel at this business.  The state should deputize these agencies to enter schools and take over many of the responsibilities of overworked and understaffed guidance departments. These outside agencies should also be tasked with offering college access information to parents.

Meet the Author
It is time to use our scholarship system as a powerful force to convince potential dropouts to remain in the race and stay in school. Compared to many of the anti-dropout programs in place today, an improved scholarship system could make a major difference and help more kids cross the finish line and receive their diploma on graduation day.

Bob Hildreth is founder and executive director of Families United in Educational Leadership (FUEL), a Boston nonprofit that works with low-income families in Boston, Chelsea, and Lynn to help them realize the goal of college education for their children.