After two years of a pandemic that battered the workforce of this tourism-dependent county in central Florida, leaders had a gift for departing high school graduates this month: free tuition at either the local community college or the county technical school.
Osceola County commissioners announced earlier this year that they would set aside $12 million in federal COVID-19 funding to pay the tuition of any 2022 high school graduate who wanted to go to Valencia College or the county technical school.
“I didn’t have anybody to pay for my college,” Madilyn Hilder, an Osceola High senior who lives with her grandmother, told the Orlando Sentinel. “Money was always the thing that was going to keep me from going to college.”
Because of the program, Osceola Prosper, Hilder said she will now start her studies in elementary education at Valencia College in August, with plans to later transfer to the University of Central Florida.
The goal of Osceola Prosper is to boost education levels past high school and raise the prospects for better-paying jobs for Osceola residents, said Brandon Arrington, chairman of the county commission.
“I think a lot of people think, ‘If I go to college, I’m going to have $100,000 worth of debt,'” Arrington said.
Osceola County is home to large numbers of tourism workers for Orlando area hotels, restaurants and theme parks. During the early months of pandemic-related business closures, the county had the highest unemployment rate in Florida, reaching 14.4% in 2020.
The county previously had offered $500 scholarships to encourage students to study at Valencia College. The new program will cover the $3,000 a year costs of studying full time at the community college.
Because the available funds are limited, the program is only for 2022 graduates.
Guidance counselors at Osceola County's high schools said they have been having more conversations with students about continuing their education.
Those conversations usually start with, “Now you have this option, what are your thoughts?” said Kendyl Bass, the college and career specialist at Osceola High. “It has changed a lot of people’s minds.”