Silver State Opportunity Grant a proper solution for students

The Review Journal’s Feb. 29 editorial regarding the Silver State Opportunity Grant opens with the premise that “it’s always best to identify [a] problem as precisely as possible” before crafting a solution. Unfortunately, the editorial then misidentified the problem.

The grant was not created simply to help low-income Nevadans pay for college. It was designed to help low-income Nevadans graduate from college. That distinction is huge, and the difference between attending and graduating college has dramatic implications for our state and the students.

It’s important to note the harsh reality that students who attend college less than full time struggle to graduate. Based on the most recent data available, of students who enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada in their first semester taking fewer than 12 credits, just more than two out of every 100 received their degree or certificate. That’s a graduation rate of 2.1 percent.

For students who took a load of 12 to 14 credits, the graduation rate increased to just over 9 percent, but for students who took 15 credits or more during their first semester attending, the graduation rate jumped to more than 21 percent.

That data is very telling. Students at CSN are 10 times more likely to graduate if they attend full time their first semester, and this is the premise behind the Silver State Opportunity Grant.

The Legislature understands that low-income students need to work to support themselves and their families, which often leads to part-time attendance at college. The SSOG was created to give state-funded financial aid to these students so they can reduce their external work load and attend college full time, which, again, significantly increases their chances of graduating.

While some college experience is certainly better than none, the power of a diploma or certificate to change the course of a person’s life was the basis of the SSOG. For first-generation students and recent immigrants, graduation is the ladder of opportunity, and the purpose of the SSOG was to give more students access to it.

Based on 2013 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, graduation makes a dramatic difference in the lives of students. According to the center, young adults with associate’s degrees earned a median income 25 percent higher than people with a high school credential alone.

While it’s certainly disappointing that 45 percent of CSN students who received the grant in the first semester this year did not meet the requirements to receive it going forward, that’s not a failure of the SSOG. It’s a wake-up call to ensure each college has the resources and programs necessary to support their students’ unique needs from when they enter their doors through graduation.

The RJ’s editorial suggested that the SSOG is an example of government throwing money at a problem without understanding that problem first. Nothing could be further from the truth. The grant was designed narrowly to accomplish a very specific goal with measurable results that began as a pilot program, so that adjustments can be made going forward. I wish every state program would be so measured and deliberate.

This is the first time the State of Nevada has created a need-based scholarship for our college students. It started at a modest $2.5 million per year to get the program up and running. Does this meet the need of every student in Nevada’s colleges? Of course not, but it leverages very limited state resources to achieve the greatest outcome possible: helping more low-income Nevadans graduate from college, which is the issue we were trying to address in the first place.

Ben Kieckhefer represents southern Washoe County and Carson City in the Nevada Senate.

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