Commentary: Family income should never determine destiny

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Tatiana Pedroso waves to family before the start of commencement ceremonies for Salt Lake Community College at the Maverik Center on Friday, May 5, 2017.

Did you know that when a child is born in Utah, their likelihood of graduating from college can be predicted? It’s not based on an IQ test, or an aptitude test or how quickly they learn to roll over.

No, their likelihood of college success can be predicted solely based on their family’s income. Children from families in the bottom income quartile are four times less likely to graduate from college than their higher-income peers.

Nothing has proven more effective in breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty than a college education. As presidents of open-access institutions, we prioritize giving all Utahns access to a high-quality education. Yet too often, financial barriers get in the way for the very students who would benefit the most from a college education.

Our experience shows that scholarships designed to supplement a student’s ability to pay for college are a proven tool to get more Utahns to enroll in and graduate from college. Salt Lake Community College and Weber State University have both implemented scholarship programs using this criteria, sending a clear message to students regardless of family income: You belong in higher education, and we believe in your success.

Both Dream Weber and SLCC Promise pay students’ remaining college costs when federal grants fall short.

The Dream Weber program, which began in 2010, has resulted in 3,692 bachelor's degrees and 4,187 associate degrees. The data are compelling: Dream Weber students complete their degree at significantly higher rates than non-Dream Weber students (73 percent to 44 percent, respectively).

One graduate of Dream Weber, Trisha Nichols, started her university education as a single mother with four children, and had work experience in retail and restaurant jobs. Now Trisha reports she’s working in a high-paying job following her December graduation from the Master of Taxation program.

“After five years of being on welfare, I am happy to say that my first job offer is going to provide me an opportunity to comfortably support my family," she said. "Thank you a million times over.”

Since 2016, SLCC Promise has helped 1,758 students access a college education. One Promise scholarship recipient, Mikelle Wrobel, is transferring to Weber State University in the fall to study sociology. She started at SLCC as a traditional incoming freshman who didn’t think she could afford a college education.

“It’s hard when your family situation isn’t one where you have a lot of financial support, due to other expenses and circumstances,” she said. “SLCC Promise stepped in right when I needed the support. It would be great if more students could benefit from a statewide program like SLCC Promise.“

Students like Trisha and Mikelle are exactly the college graduates that Utah needs: hungry to learn and earn a degree and committed to their education. And yet, at a time when a college education has never been more critical to an individual’s economic success, only 20 percent of all student aid at Utah’s public colleges and universities is need-based. That makes our state the second-lowest in the West in distribution of need-based aid.

It’s time to expand these successful scholarship programs to Utahns statewide.

We applaud state Rep. Derrin Owens’ House Bill 260, the Access Utah Promise Scholarship, which proposes taking the model of SLCC Promise and Dream Weber statewide, funding the first two years of college for low-income students when federal grants don’t cut it. The scholarship would be available not only for students right out of high school, but also for adult learners as well.

Family income should never determine a child’s destiny. Alongside the Board of Regents’ initiative to provide a full-time college access advisor for every high school in Utah, HB 260 is a step in the right direction for making sure we show all Utah children a financial path to college.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Dr. Deneece G. Huftalin is embraced by members of the Salt Lake Community College student association after being named the new President of the college, Thursday September 11, 2014.

Deneece G. Huftalin is president of Salt Lake Community College.

(Photo courtesy of Benjamin Zack) Pictured is Brad Mortensen, who was named president of Weber State University on Thursday, December 6, 2018.

Brad L. Mortensen is president of Weber State University.