Vancouver grad in limbo after $11,400 scholarship evaporates

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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photoLauren Lackaff, center, chaperones kindergartners from Crestline Elementary School on a trip to the Oregon Zoo on Thursday. Lackaff hopes to be a teacher and study at Eastern Washington University, but just learned the scholarship program she qualified for was eliminated by the Legislature.

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Lauren Lackaff, a graduating senior at Mountain View High, had to go on Facebook in late May to learn she had been named the winner of a state scholarship she hoped would cover two years’ tuition at Eastern Washington University, where she plans to major in education this fall.

But the news quickly lost its luster when she went to the website of the Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board, the state agency that awards the Washington Award for Vocational Excellence scholarships.

There, she read this paragraph:

“Prior to the recession, WAVE winners were awarded scholarships that paid for up to two years of college. This year, winning students will receive a signed certificate from the Governor, along with an award letter.”

Instead of getting $11,400 toward college expenses at the Cheney campus, she’d be getting a certificate to hang on her wall.

For most of its history, the WAVE program, established in 1984, has provided three scholarships — two to high school students and one to a student enrolled in a technical school — in each of the state’s 49 legislative districts.

Last year, the Legislature cut the program by two-thirds. Only one student in each legislative district received the cash award.

This year, in the scramble to cut spending and bridge a $5 billion budget deficit, lawmakers suspended the WAVE scholarship for at least the next two years. The cut will save the state $6 million over the next three academic years.

“It was a really great award,” said Marina Parr, spokeswoman for the board. “It supports our mission, which is to ensure that our students get hands-on relevant education that leads to living-wage careers and college.”

For Lackaff and her family, who live in the 17th Legislative District, the news was a deep disappointment. The lack of formal notification only made it worse. Although the state notified most school districts in late May of the names of students who had been singled out for recognition, 18-year-old Lackaff, who has dreamed of becoming a schoolteacher since she was a little girl, had to dig it out for herself.

Carol Fenstermacher, spokeswoman for the Evergreen School District, said Mountain View High didn’t receive notification that Lackaff was a winner until last week. Seniors’ last day was June 3.

“The certificate came,” she said. “It is sitting there with her diploma. Seniors will be picking up their diplomas June 21.”

In the meantime, the family is scrambling to apply for student loans. On May 27, Lackaff’s grandmother, Carol Kays, wrote to the financial aid office at Eastern Washington University, saying her granddaughter “now needs assistance with any funds that can be made available to her.”

Lackaff and her parents are applying for several loans, but first they have to pass a credit check, a process that doesn’t commence until July 1.

“Timing is important,” said Lackaff’s mother, Kristine Lackaff. “We have a very short window to apply.”

Kristine Lackaff believes the state should be held liable for “promises made” to this year’s winners. She’s also a little miffed that the 2011 Legislature found $5 million to help launch the public-private Opportunity Scholarships program for middle-class families with incomes of up to $98,000 for a family of four.

“We are a middle- to lower-middle-income family who really could use this scholarship,” she said in a letter to The Columbian. If her daughter fails to qualify for the college loans she’s applied for, she said, “Lauren will not be able to attend the college that she has been working toward for the past 12 years.”

But Parr said the board’s communications with school districts this year made it clear that funding for the scholarships was iffy.

“We weren’t sure of the financial future of the WAVE program,” she said. “We gave lots of warnings that WAVE was very much in jeopardy. We said, ‘Go ahead and apply, but there may not be money.’”

Lackaff chose EWU in part because of its championship football team.

“Her father played football at the University of Oregon,” Kristine Lackaff said. “She grew up around the football field. She wants that atmosphere.”

With tuition, fees, books, and room and board, her costs at EWU are likely to exceed $21,000 a year.

If she’s not approved for the loans, Lackaff said, she’ll likely attend Clark College.

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.