Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal | May 12, 2022
KISSIMMEE— Told it was a mandatory senior meeting, the school’s 12th graders gathered in Osceola High School’s auditorium as required. There were balloons, cheerleaders, the school drum line and then an announcement that some students couldn’t quite comprehend or believe.
Principal Johana Santiago made things clear: “This means you get to go to school for free!”
The Osceola County Commission announced in March that it would pay for all 2022 high school graduates in the county to go to Valencia College or the county technical school, a more than $12 million investment that aims to boost education in a working-class community hit hard economically by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Initial results are promising, with Valencia seeing a surge in applications after the new Osceola Prosper program went public. Since the announcement, 774 high school students started new applications; before the announcement, 689 Osceola students had signed up to start classes at the college.
“I didn’t have anybody to pay for my college,” said Madilyn Hilder, an Osceola High senior who lives with her grandmother and, like many of her classmates, juggles work along with her classes. “Money was always the thing that was going to keep me from going to college.”
Because Madilyn didn’t think she could afford college without worrisome loans, she wasn’t planning to start. But thanks to Osceola Prosper, she’ll begin her elementary education studies at Valencia in August with plans to later transfer to the University of Central Florida.
The program’s funding, coupled with scholarships she’d already won, may even allow the would-be teacher to attend the Valencia/UCF downtown Orlando campus and live in a dorm for the full college experience she wants but feared was financially out of reach.
Now, she said, “The only thing that can really stop me is myself.”
Osceola Prosper, funded by federal COVID-19 relief money, seeks to boost post-high school training and the prospects for better-paying jobs for Osceola residents, said Brandon Arrington, chairman of the county commission.
The program is a continuation of efforts to increase college-going rates the county and Valencia began a decade ago, and it follows a $500 scholarship offer the county made last year to encourage students to take classes at the local college.
The new program, however, is bigger, paying all Valencia costs — about $3,000 a year for full-time students — and allowing students to go full or part time and to take up to five years to earn an associate’s degree. They can also use it to pay for career-focused programs at Osceola Technical College.
The program is only for 2022 graduates, however.
Many high school students feel ”pressure to get a job right after high school” to help with family bills, Arrington said, and don’t see paying for education as doable. “I think a lot of people think if I go to college, I’m going to have $100,000 worth of debt,” he said.
With Osceola Prosper, they can still work but also take classes that can help secure them a better economic future in the years ahead, he added.
In March, Arrington and the other commissions fanned out across the county to share news about Osceola Prosper at the pep rallies at 10 public high schools.
“It was so joyful you would almost thought it was the last day of school,” he said.
“I don’t know that I’ll have a day in my career that will top that,” agreed Kathleen Plinske, Valencia’s president, who attended the announcements at two high schools.
Students cheered, clapped, pumped their arms in the air or covered their mouths in shock. Some even leaped to their feet after hearing the news.
In 2013, county, school and Valencia officials launched a “Got College?” initiative to encourage more students to pursue more schooling and help them navigate applications for admissions and financial aid.
Plinske, then overseeing the college’s Osceola campus, spearheaded that effort, with the backing of county and public school officials concerned that Osceola’s college-going rate ranked it 61 out of 67 Florida counties.
By 2019, Osceola was ranked 19th in the state. “It was just such a wonderful, collective success,” Plinkse said.
Then the pandemic hit, and all the progress was erased. “It was devastating to see,” she added.
Osceola, home to many low-wage tourism jobs, posted the highest unemployment rate in the state in the early months of the COVID-19 health scare, and paying for college became further out of reach for many families.
But last summer, the county commission agreed to spend some federal relief money on $500 scholarships students Osceola students could use to offset costs at Valencia. It helped.
“We didn’t recover all the back to the 2019 numbers, but we saw a pretty significant lift,” Plinske said.
That data prompted new discussions with the county commission about a new, more expansive tuition program for 2022 graduates. Osceola Prosper was launched.
For counselors at Osceola high schools, that meant more conversations with hundreds of 12th graders who had no plans for post-secondary education.
“Now you have this option, what are your thoughts?” said Kendyl Bass, the college and career specialist at Osceola High, who had nearly 190 such students on her campus. “It has changed a lot of people’s minds.”
That did it for Angel Tvejo, an Osceola High senior who did not have college in his immediate plans until he learned about Osceola Prosper.
“It was a relief,” he said. “A lot of it was just payment.”
Now he’s planning to study psychology at Valencia, get his real estate license and eventually transfer to UCF.
His parents, he said, didn’t quite believe it.
“They were in disbelief. There has to be a catch.”
Santiago, the school’s principal, said she heard that a lot. “There’s no catch. Nobody’s going to ask for the money back in 10 years.”
In a school where many students live in low-income families whose parents never went to college, the Osceola Prosper announcement was a game changer.
”It was beautiful,” Santiago said. “If money was the problem, now it no longer is.”
How to apply
Osceola Prosper is open to any 2022 high school graduate in Osceola, whether they earn degrees from public, private or homeschooling programs. For more information, go to Osceolaprosper.com