Another State Takes a Crack at Helping Poor Kids Get into College

University students walking on campus, rear view
Getty Images

While many college-bound students and their families have been keeping an eye on Washington, desperately hoping President Obama or someone in Congress would concoct a solid plan to decisively remedy our massive student loan/student debt crisis, a handful of states have been offering truly innovative solutions to the problem.

A few months ago, I wrote about Pay It Forward, Oregon's groundbreaking plan that would allow high school graduates to attend college for free. In return, these students would pay a portion of their income back into the fund for 20 years. The plan, which echoes California's proposed FixUC, could fundamentally change the way schools, families and communities approach higher ed. In the beginning, Pay It Forward will only be implemented at a few Oregon schools, but the state hopes to broadly expand the program over the next several years.

In the meantime, another state has offered its own modest proposal for changing the face of higher education. On Wednesday, Delaware's Gov. Jack Markell announced that his state would send application fee waivers to every high-achieving, low-income student in the state.

At first flush, this seems to be a relatively small-potatoes idea. To begin with, as David Leonhardt pointed out in The New York Times, Delaware's little: It has roughly 9,000 high school seniors, only about 380 of whom would qualify for the program. And the sums under discussion also aren't that high -- the average college application fee is $37.88. But if your family is on a tight budget, that fee may be money you you can ill-afford to spend.

On another level, however, Delaware's plan could be highly significant. To begin with, it surgically targets the group of students who are most in need of help, who are most likely to benefit from it -- and who are most at risk of not getting a college degree. Numerousstudies have highlighted the dearth of lower-income students at America's top-tier universities. And, as a recent Brookings report put it, their absence cuts both ways: "[T]here are missed opportunities in both directions: few if any of these students consider selective colleges, and selective colleges in turn miss them."

In addition to paying those application fees, Delaware is one of three states that cover the cost of the SATs for all seniors, and it is also providing a great deal of college guidance to all of its students, including materials about scholarships and information about how to research colleges. The ultimate goal, as Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Murphy recently pointed out, is to offer a "robust plan" to improve college access.

As always when anyone proposes using taxpayer money for a new program, some will question the cost. But, as some states have noted, students often choose to stay in the states where they graduated from college -- especially if those states indicate a tendency toward economic innovation. By focusing on educating their brightest students (as Delaware is doing), and encouraging the country's best students to come to their colleges (as Oregon's plan would do), states could be setting themselves up for a long-term brain gain. And, in the end, that could be the best investment they can make.

Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings editor. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.