warner in lynchburg

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., talks to students Monday at E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg about their higher education choices.

LYNCHBURG — Like so many teenagers across the country, when it came time for Mubashara Ashraf to pick where to continue her education after high school, she had to factor in the cost.

Ashraf settled on Randolph College to study education after she graduated from Heritage High School in Lynchburg. Because she chose to attend a college in the area this fall, a nonprofit chipped in an $8,000 scholarship.

The scholarship came through Beacon of Hope. The Lynchburg nonprofit that partners with Lynchburg City Schools recognizes the importance of a postsecondary education but also that it can come with a high price tag.

The group’s Stay Close, Go Far Promise Scholarship Program offers scholarships to high school graduates attending local colleges, universities and technical institutions. Through this program, which began last year, a student could attend Central Virginia Community College for two years for free.

For more rural areas that see young people leaving for larger paychecks in urban areas, the leaders behind this program hope it will be a game-changer in offering incentives for people to stay and contribute to the local economy.

“It’s one giant communal effort of investing in our people,” Beacon of Hope Executive Director Laura Hamilton said.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., visited E.C. Glass High School on Monday to learn how effective the program has been in getting high school graduates the additional education necessary to receive quality employment.

He talked to students about how they’re choosing to further their education, and he praised the idea of a partnership between the public school system and the private nonprofit.

“This problem and challenge of how we get young people into college, get them the skills they need, but not leave them hamstrung afterward without being able to make the choices they want because they have so much debt is something that’s personal and important to me from a policy standpoint,” said Warner, who was the first in his family to graduate from college.

Warner eschewed the free college pitches from Democratic presidential candidates. He said while they are noble aspirations, it’s not pragmatic in the short term for a country with so much debt.

Instead, Warner said, he’s focusing on realistic proposals with bipartisan support that can be accomplished sooner.

For instance, Warner is backing legislation to allow students to earn college credits while still in high school, funded through the Pell Grant program.

He also reintroduced a bill to ensure that a wide range of comparative data about higher education programs is more readily available for prospective students and their families.

“Higher education costs and health care costs are two of the most opaque areas in our whole society,” Warner said. “We’ve got to change that.”

He joined Republicans in supporting legislation that they say will encourage the growth of income-share agreements, which are privately run alternatives to student loans that commit workers to paying back a portion of their future income.

He also introduced the Employer Participation in Repayment Act that would allow employers to contribute up to $5,250 tax-free to their employees’ student loan repayments.

Gary Mignogna, the president and CEO of nuclear-energy firm Framatome, said his Lynchburg-based company already pays with tax-free dollars to send its employees back to school to build on their education. So he said contributing toward loan repayments would be appealing, too.

Additionally, Mignogna said, Beacon of Hope will help provide a pipeline of employment.

“We’ve found that those with rural roots are more likely to stay with us,” Mignogna said.

Beacon of Hope relies solely on private funding. It’s more than halfway to its goal of raising $5 million to offer scholarships through at least 2024.

So far, the program’s organizers are encouraged by the participation. Of the roughly 550 students who graduated from E.C. Glass and Heritage High Schools this spring, about 40% are furthering their education on Beacon of Hope scholarships this fall. There was a 70% increase in students attending Central Virginia Community College this fall compared to last fall.

“Somebody is in your corner,” Lynchburg City Schools Superintendent Crystal Edwards said to students. “Don’t ever forget someone has got your back in Lynchburg City Schools.”

Philip Bowles graduated from Heritage High School in 2017 and was among the first group to receive a scholarship to attend Liberty University, which matched his scholarship. He’s starting his junior year, and he’s taken out only federal student loans, not private loans.

“It brings to light how important it is for us to get some form of higher education and how much that can help us in the future,” Bowles said about the scholarship program. “To have an opportunity for free college or a reduced price is amazing.”

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