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College Motivation with Early Commitment Programs

It's going to take some creativity to meet President Obama's goal of leading the world in the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.

Virginia is joining a handful of states trying one innovative approach to boost completion rates by supporting kids before they set foot on a college campus and encouraging savings for higher education. This fall, the commonwealth will pilot The Virginia 529 Early Commitment Program designed to motivate low- and moderate-income high school students to prepare for higher education and reward their efforts with money toward tuition.

Students who meet the pledge to maintain their grades, exhibit good behavior, complete community service hours, and take a financial literacy course, can earn up to $2,000 in the state's 529 College Savings Plan to be used toward college expenses.

Speaking at the College Savings Foundation 2010 Summit in Washington on Wednesday, Mary Morris, chief executive officer of the Virginia College Savings Plan, said the program hopes to motivate students to take the appropriate high school coursework to be ready for college and provide a road map to plug them into financial aid opportunities. The goal is "to help families understand that college is accessible, attainable, and affordable," Morris said.

The program will be piloted at five Virginia schools—two rural, two inner city, and one suburban. The schools were selected based on experience with counselors from the partner organization, GRASP (Great Aspirations Scholarship Program). The counselors will provide support to students and help build bridges between the K-12 and higher education systems, Morris explained.

"We were looking for something we could sustain and still make a meaningful contribution," Morris said. "We still wanted to have that aspirational piece. We hope this is one more incentive to keep them in school."

Students who meet the criteria at the end of 10th grade will get a 529 account with $500 in it. After 11th grade, another $500 will be added, and another $500 will go in after graduation. If students attended a Virginia public school, they also could receive a $500 bonus for a total of $2,000 that could be used toward any postsecondary education.

Saving for college not only creates greater financial stability, but it also creates expectations for attending and completing colleges, Morris said.

To make sure the program is working, the state will track high school performance and graduation rates, college applications and acceptances, enrollment/completion, and financial aid awarded.

Other Early Commitment Programs include Colorado College Invest, Indiana's 21st Century Scholars, Oklahoma Promise, Wisconsin Covenant and Washington College Bound.

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