During Tuesday’s School District of Osceola County’s Annual State of Education event, Valencia College President Dr. Kathleen Plinske wowed the audience when she announced that the Osceola County Commissioners are providing $1.3 million of support to kick off a Valencia College scholarship program that will help create postsecondary education opportunities for residents. This comes after Valencia College saw a decrease of 25% in new student registrations in 2020-2021.

The funds from the county will provide a $500 scholarship for up to 2,000 Osceola County residents who become a degree or certificate-seeking student in Fall 2021. The program – known as the Fall Osceola County Resident Enrollment Award — is intended for anyone seeking postsecondary opportunities. The scholarship will cover the upfront cost of tuition and fees for one course and would provide for the cost of textbooks or other instructional materials to set each student up for success.

In addition to the $1 million slated for 2,000 new students, the county will provide $300,000 to be used as scholarships for existing Valencia College students from Osceola County who have outstanding balances and are at risk of being dropped from their Valencia classes if they cannot pay what they owe.

“Our community has been hit hard by the pandemic and we have been alarmed to learn that a significant number of our high school graduates have not enrolled in college. Working with Valencia, we set an ambitious yet attainable goal to award scholarships to 2,000 new students this Fall,” said Osceola Commission Chairman Brandon Arrington. “It is perhaps a once-in-a-life time chance for our residents to take an important step toward earning a college credential — as well as becoming eligible for at least $1,500 in emergency aid through the American Rescue Plan in the fall.”

“We are so excited to announce this scholarship opportunity for Osceola residents because education is an investment in a brighter future,” said Kathleen Plinske, president of Valencia College. “During the pandemic, Americans with college credentials were far less likely to lose their jobs than people with high school diplomas. Together, we believe that this scholarship program will open doors to those who are looking to jump-start a career change or begin their journey toward a college degree.”

Encouraging post-secondary education is vital in Osceola, where only 35.6 percent of residents between the ages of 25-64 have earned an associate degree or higher, compared with 42.2 percent of residents overall in the state in Florida. This also translates into less income. For example, Osceola County residents with a high school diploma have median annual wages of $31,119, compared to $41,392 for vocational certificate holders and $62,407 for residents with an associate degree, according to the Florida College Access Network.

And though the number of Osceola County high school graduates in 2020 was nearly 8 percent higher than the class of 2019, the number of students continuing their education at Valencia dropped nearly 8 percent – with the biggest declines seen among male, Black and Hispanic students.

“These students did not enroll elsewhere and did not continue their education after high school,” Arrington said. “Unfortunately, students who delay entry into college have a lower likelihood of degree completion. That’s why historically I’ve always been enthusiastic about our ‘Got College?’ partnership that resulted in an increase in Osceola County’s college-going rate from 40 percent in 2010 to 54 percent in 2017. Because we’ve been able to include opportunities for our residents.”

The County’s funding complements more than $102 million Valencia is set to receive in federal funding through the American Rescue Plan. College officials anticipate distributing $85-$90 million of these funds directly to students in the form of emergency grant aid, starting in October.