For the Mahoning Valley to capture its full potential of prosperity, it must elevate the educational attainment of its high school graduates. Several efforts - Youngstown State's presidential scholarships and the Regional Chamber's Steel to Scholars among them - have been launched. But perhaps the one that holds the most promise is Eastern Gateway Community College's Gateway Grant.
Every high school graduate in Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties is guaranteed free tuition for two years at Eastern Gateway. We simply can't heap enough praise on this concept, nor can we adequately stress the importance for everybody - parents, guidance counselors, teachers, business leaders, community activists, everybody - to use the Gateway Grant as a catalyst to creating a buzz about higher education.
The Gateway Grant works like this: high school graduates must first receive their Pell Grant determinations. The Gateway Grant pays (for those with a 2.5 GPA and higher and who have no gap between high school graduation and college enrollment the next fall) all of the tuition not covered by the Pell.
This does not include books, which is good. To work best, the students should be required to have some buy-in.
The Gateway Grant would work best if the entire Mahoning Valley creates an environment in which higher education becomes a natural expectation. After all, the Gateway Grant is not simply a tool to make college more affordable, but to attract students who otherwise would not attend.
The challenge then becomes retention. Thus, a culture change in Pre-K through 12 is needed to condition students for college, and a comprehensive support network should be in place at Eastern Gateway.
Each of our communities, meanwhile, should use this as bait to attract more residents and businesses. Especially in communities engaged in aggressive housing demolitions, the attraction of a free college education could be the foundation of a rebuilding strategy.
In Kalamazoo, Mich., the Kalamazoo Promise pays four years of college for all city school graduates who attend any higher education institution in Michigan. On a sliding scale, it pays 100 percent for those who attend K-12 in Kalamazoo schools to 65 percent for those who begin in ninth grade. Enrollment in the city's schools increased 25 percent since the promise was announced.
The fact Eastern Gateway is only a two-year college should not pose a problem. To the contrary, it makes college more attractive. Ohio law has been changed for a smooth transition of credit hours from community colleges to four-year institutions. And in Kalamazoo, more than 25 percent of the high school grads attend community colleges.
The Oberlin College Partnership Scholarship Program provides free tuition to Oberlin High School graduates who are accepted into the highly selective university that costs $60,000 per year. Families moved into town just for the chance and the environment at Oberlin High School has shifted to a student body focused on qualifying for the scholarship.
That's an atmosphere that can be duplicated here.
College tuition is a high priority for most families, high enough that eliminating or reducing it can serve as motivation to relocate. Adjusted for inflation, government spending on colleges is at its lowest in 25 years while the cost of college tuition and fees is increasing faster than health care.
Forty-five percent of high school graduates borrowed money for college in 1993. This included money borrowed from family.
Sixty-seven percent of high school graduates borrowed money for college in 2008. This does not include money borrowed from family, just government and bank loans.
The average college debt last year was $23,300, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
The Gateway Grant can be transformative.