Need based-aid helps bridge the gap

It’s often said that college is not for everyone, and that’s true. But for many students, higher education is the right place to forge a future. Take a fairly typical student – let’s call her Emma. Idaho born and raised, she’s a Vandal freshman. With a 3.5 high school GPA, this strong student wants to be a veterinarian. She belongs in higher education.

Emma’s family works hard, but doesn’t have a lot of money – about $41,000 in annual family income, below the Idaho average of about $49,000. As she planned for college, with direct costs around $20,000 for Idaho’s comparatively affordable public universities, Emma could realistically expect only limited resources from her family – around $1,000 per year. Institutional and federal grants help, as do subsidized federal loans – close to $12,000, all told. Full-time work in the summer and part-time work in the academic year help her contribute around $4,000.

After all that, Emma still faces a deficit of more than $3,000. For Emma and her family, that $3,000 might as well be $3 million.

President Chuck Staben

The state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, awarding scholarships of $3,500 based on need and academic performance, helps bridge the gap that Emma and too many other students face.

Gov. Brad Little has proposed expanding the program to reach more students, requesting from the Legislature a $7 million increase that would widen the scholarship pool by up to 2,000 students. That gets closer to the scale of need for more than 4,500 eligible students now on a waiting list. For many students, the Opportunity Scholarship may make the difference between staying home or pursuing a life-changing education after high school.

This investment can make a significant impact on the number of Idaho students who seek to continue their education beyond high school. At U of I, we’ve sought to improve processes and change attitudes about college attendance – not just for us, but across higher education. We’ve partnered on statewide initiatives such as the Direct Admissions program, the Apply Idaho common application and the elimination of application fees. Every public four-year school and community college is aggressively recruiting and enrolling Idaho students.

Despite these efforts, the “go-on” needle stubbornly hovers around 45 percent. Why? The economy plays a role. Low unemployment means students can enter the workforce after high school. However, many students may not appreciate they’re foregoing an average $1 million lifetime wage premium that comes with a college degree.

On the other hand, family income in Idaho is also low; about 39 percent of U of I students come from families with income below that $49,000 average. Without a robust need-based aid program, students with academic preparation and the desire to attend college have a more difficult path.

The University of Idaho has skin in this game. Complementing efforts like the Opportunity Scholarship, this spring U of I is rolling out the “Vandal Promise” need-based scholarship campaign where donors contribute $5,000 annually over five years to qualified students, providing immediate cash that helps bridge the funding gap.

A generation ago, a summer job could pay the bills. One of our celebrated alumni, SpaceX co-founder and St. Maries native Tom Mueller, was a logger in the summer as he worked on a mechanical engineering degree. But the costs of postsecondary education have increased. Today, Tom, like Emma, would face a potentially insurmountable barrier.

We have to ensure opportunities are available to our bright, capable and hard-working citizens, regardless of family income, as we offer a hand up toward postsecondary education. Gov. Little’s Opportunity Scholarship proposal represents much-needed investment in our students, our state and our shared future.

Written by outgoing University of Idaho President Chuck Staben.

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