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Is a Scholarship Promise Enough to Keep Students on a Path to College?

A state program that promises college scholarships to low-income middle schoolers who keep a pledge to stay on track in school is so far showing no evidence of a positive impact on high school graduation and GPA, according to a study published last month.

Established in 2007, the Washington State College Bound Scholarship Program is offered to low-income students who apply in middle school and take a pledge. The pledge asks students to promise to graduate from a Washington state high school or home school with 2.0 GPA or higher, not be convicted of a felony, apply to an eligible college and file their application for student aid as soon as they are able. Indiana and Oklahoma also have programs that ask middle school students to make similar pledges in exchange for the promise of college financial aid.

The Washington state program was observed as part of a three-part study that is following students from the time they sign up until they matriculate in college. The most recent paper, published in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, represents the second part of the study, which looked at the effects of the scholarship promise on high school GPA and graduation as well as criminality.

The researchers studied five cohorts of students, two in the years before the scholarship became available and three when the program was active. They compared students who were eligible when the scholarship was available and when it wasn't, and students who were not eligible during any of those years.

"What you would expect if the scholarship is having an impact is that...the students who can get the scholarship would do better relative to those students who are not eligible for the scholarship as compared to the period before," said the paper's co-author, Dan Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington. "Basically, when we employ these different types of statistical techniques, we don't find much of a benefit with regards to either high school GPA or high school graduation."

When it came to criminality, Goldhaber said, that the results were different but not conclusive.

 "It looked like there might have been a bit of a benefit associated with students not ultimately being incarcerated," he said, "but we're pretty careful about making a strong conclusion because we're talking about really small sample sizes."

The first paper in the study series focused on students signing up for the program in its early years.

"The factors that were predicting which students signed up for the scholarship were very close to the factors that predict the students that were already going to college," Goldhaber said. "It may be that the program wasn't, in early years...reaching students who weren't already going to college."

"[I]t's possible that as time goes on and the program goes deeper into the eligible population, which it has, that it reaches more students," Goldhaber said.

Goldhaber also said the results may signal a need to broaden the program's focus to include families. "Maybe focusing on the way that we're getting students to sign up and focusing on the students is not enough, that you need to do more to get the parents and families engaged," he said.

"I do think that there's a lot of evidence that you need to get families involved in their kids' schooling to have a real impact on changing college going because it is an orientation that kids have that is shaped by their families and communities in part," Goldhaber said, "so I think that getting families and communities to buy into the notion that kids that you wouldn't think could go to college actually can is an important component and in fact, that was one of the things that the middle school counselors talked about."

But he said the real test of the program will be its impact on students' college experiences, the focus of the researchers' final paper.

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