Back in 2005 the Wyoming legislature set up the Hathaway Scholarship to help make higher education more accessible to Wyoming high school graduates, but data requested by Wyoming Public Radio indicates low-income students aren't reaping the same benefits from the program as their higher income peers. Bailey Nowak's story offers a glimpse of why.
She welcomes me into a tiny office at the University of Wyoming. She coaches students on career skills like interviewing and resume writing. A UW student herself, this one of two jobs she has in order to pay for school. She's also been running her own lawn care business since she was 12.
"I'm still mowing even when it's September. Some [customers] want me to mow till October," she says and chuckles. It's Wyoming and there's a fifty-fifty chance that by then the ground will already be blanketed in snow. But she'll do the work if there's work to be done.
I first met this 20-year-old go-getter last spring when she was finishing up her associate's degree at Laramie County Community College (LCCC) in Cheyenne. I was there working on a story about how more Wyoming college graduates could help the state's economy, and Nowak was a shining example of a first-generation college student with big dreams.
But her story is also one of missed opportunity. Nowak remembers an official presentation on the Hathaway Scholarship back in eighth grade and then she didn't really hear about it again in high school.
"The reason I actually found out about the Hathaway is I applied for LCCC and they asked if I had a Hathaway, and I said 'yeah maybe.'"
She scored a 23 on her ACT — well above the state average of 19 — but she was two points away from the highest level of the Hathaway Scholarship. She didn't do any extra preparation for the test, but she would have had she known that thousands of dollars were at stake.
"Well you should have told the juniors prior if higher ACT scores mean higher scholarship money," said Nowak with a hint of frustration in her voice. "I mean that would have helped me out."
Nowak would have liked to have known that the Hathaway Honors award was the only level that covered 100 percent of a student's need in addition to a $1,680 per semester merit award. The other three levels also provide merit awards, but only cover 25 percent of a student's need.
Data from Wyoming's community colleges indicates that low income students aren't receiving the Honors level Hathaway at the same rate as their higher income peers.
And neither are kids who are the first in their family to go to college.
That data doesn't surprise Nowak. Looking back she said her peers from higher income families were more in the know.
"Ok prime example: my friend, her parents both swam for the University of Wyoming, and they prepped her so hard for the ACT. She did nightly study. She had to go to teachers. And all this before the ACT." Nowak said she asked her friend why and she replied: "Well you have to get a certain score." Then she asked her how she knew all this. Her friend's response: "Well my parents."
Neither of Nowak's parents went to college. So she didn't have the advantage of a family with insider knowledge. Nowak has a twin brother who had even less information about the Hathaway.
"When he went to go apply for the Hathaway, just in case he decided to go college, he didn't realize some of the standards."
He hadn't taken all of the required classes and without the Hathaway, college felt out of reach. Since high school, he's been stuck in entry-level jobs.
If Wyoming is serious about increasing the number of people with advanced degrees, Nowak said educators and policymakers need to make sure all kids have the information they need.
Michael Wade from the University of Wyoming agreed.
"If we want to increase the quality of life in our communities and grow our economy we need to support all students."
Wade runs a program at that supports low-income and first-generation college students. He said it's important to collect information that illuminates these disparities.
"And not just let it self-select into these students are doing well in Hathaway and these students aren't, these students are doing well in college and graduating and these students aren't." Wade says without targeted interventions achievement gaps will not close. "They'll stay the same or continue to widen."
At UW last year, only 15 percent of Honors level recipients who completed a FAFSA form – or Free Application for Federal Student Aid – identified as first-generation college students. As the award amounts decrease the percentage of first-generation college students increases. The lowest-valued award has 31 percent. That's twice as many as the top level and that means first-generation students aren't getting as much money.
Similar disparities show up in data from Laramie County Community College.
But state lawmakers aren't looking at that those numbers. They're in control of how the Hathaway Scholarship is evaluated and nothing in their evaluation looks at how the scholarship is helping underserved populations get better access to higher education.
They have looked at ways to amend the scholarship to save the state money. In 2016, the Joint Interim Education Committee requested that the Wyoming Department of Education (WDE) Hathaway Team look at what cost savings could be achieved by increasing the ACT requirements by one point per level. The results of that research indicated fewer students would be eligible, which would reduce the annual payout of Hathaway Scholarship dollars. In the end, no changes were made.
The WDE has also submitted several reports to the legislature recommending that the need portion of the scholarship be increased.
A 2017 report suggested that instead of 100 percent of a need for Honors and 25 percent for the other three levels, that the scholarship move to an incremental increase in need-based aid at each level. Honors would remain 100 percent unmet need, but Performance would be 75, Opportunity at 50 and Provisional at 25. To date, the distribution of need-based aid is unchanged.
Julie Magee, the WDE's Director of Accountability, said the department has changed its outreach strategy in the past couple years.
"There has been a lot of more direct outreach to students, instead of just to school districts." Magee said the department has created videos, is more intentionally using social media and is showing up at public events. This summer the Hathaway Team was at the state fair.
The impact of those recent efforts on low-income and first-generation students will be seen in the data in years to come.
University of Wyoming trustee Michelle Sullivan applauded those efforts and said UW has also been working hard to build stronger partnerships with school districts to make sure students have the resources they need to prepare for higher education should that be the path that they choose.
"We as adults have a responsibility to recognize that every kid deserves to be seen," said Sullivan. "And we all have a role to play — counselors, high schools and the community — to make sure we're supporting young people in a variety of ways."
Bailey Nowak said had those practices been in full swing when she was entering high school six years ago it would have made a huge difference for her brother and for her.
"I wouldn't have to be working to go school because I would have school paid for."
She said she rather be using her time to study and prepare to make a difference in her state.