A Responsible Promise

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Patricia Melton — the Executive Director of New Haven Promise — has a mantra for students, families and anyone else interested in the program. “We make college affordable,” she explains. “Not free.”

The intention of those six words is to focus on college costs — published and hidden — and the financial responsibilities of students and families. Often the first of its kind for the soon-to-be collegian, a courageous conversation isn’t just about Promise dollars, federal aid and additional scholarships. It is also about the expectation of student contribution, the benefit of a wise college choice and the necessity of spending restraint. Elaborate proms and graduation parties are soon followed by the surprise of the college’s first bill.

Melton’s “not-free” mantra also illustrates that almost every Promise scholar — both in New Haven and across the country — blows through savings and accumulates debt in the pursuit of higher education. Thus Promise programs must remain vigilant to ensure that those who enroll are equipped to finish.

It’s a tough question: Are Promise programs encouraging students — including those who’ve yet to demonstrate college readiness — to accept debilitating debt?

The Denver Scholarship Fund — one of the largest and most successful programs in the country — recently changed its funding formula to address just that. Students whose high school portfolio put them at-risk for non-completion at the next level are required to prove themselves in college before tapping into larger scholarship pots.

“We tend to care so much about kids it’s hard to do,” said Nate Easley of the Denver program. “On the other hand, if we allowed our hearts to get in the way of the research and we give the scholarships to students and they wash out, they are in a much worse situation,” leaving with debt and without a degree.

Protecting scholars isn’t the only reason to study results and define expectations. Promise programs also need to protect the unique investment. Every dollar awarded to a student who is not ready is a dollar that could have gone to a student who was. In February, the leadership of the Peoria Promise made a tough, but informed, choice about sustainability and donor base satisfaction. The result was a controversial change in funding that mandated additional accountability from the recipients.

The trend in the Promise movement has been to raise expectations, but a simple question remains — Is there a solution that addresses both universality and debt mitigation? The folks in Denver have opened a “second chance” option for students who have succeeded in college on their own dime.

And, since 2013, New Haven Promise has been testing the waters with a selective pilot program — Passport to Promise — for students with a high school grade-point average below Promise requirements. That could expand “universally” to a complete group of secondary qualifiers with reduced assistance for a shorter term. A successful year — or two — in college could unlock the full benefits of the original scholarship.

That would be a promise that both incentivizes — and protects — all students.

Bernie’s Big Idea

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Claiborne Pell — who the New York Times once called “the most formidable politician in Rhode Island history” — is best known as the namesake for the Pell Grant, which has been assisting low-income families with college costs for more than four decades.

But while the federal program is more popular than ever, at its maximum these days it covers less than one-third of tuition for the average recipient. That’s a far cry from its benefit when established. Back in the early 1970s it wiped out three-quarters of needy student’s tuition expense. And that was before an escalation of mandatory fees intended to foster the perception that college costs weren’t skyrocketing.

Well, now there is another U.S. Senator from New England — Bernie Sanders of Vermont — who has not only taken up the cause of free college, but has introduced legislation designed to eliminate public college tuition altogether. Sen. Sanders’ “College For All Act” would have the U.S. government pick up two-thirds of tuition for in-state students ($47 billion annually) and have the rest ($23 billion annually) covered by the states.

This proposal — which comes at a time when Congress is looking to slash educational assistance to needy students — would not only work to close the massive wealth gaps which have divided the country in recent years, but would also better position the U.S. to compete in a global economy, which is unlike anything previous generations have experienced.

“We live in a highly-competitive global economy and, if our economy is to be strong, we need the best-educated work force in the world,” said Sen. Sanders. “That will not happen if, every year, hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college, and if millions more leave school deeply in debt.”

Presently both students and their families are frequently left with decades of debt in pursuit of the American dream. Student loan debt is expected to top $2 trillion in the coming years, which allows loan companies to thrive by encouraging every young person to at least “test the waters” of higher education. But even a short stint in college can place an insurmountable burden on students’ shoulders, particularly if the efforts in college prove unsuccessful.

The “College For All Act” will face steep opposition in today’s political climate, which has been mostly unsupportive of long-range endeavors like those which shaped the United States following the Great Depression. Sen. Sanders’ funding formula — which calls for a Robin Hood Tax on Wall Street profits — will certainly face a wall of resistance, even though “the people” provided the bail out of Wall Street and banks just six years ago. Just a small percentage of the funds now flowing through the financial markets could help the country return to a big idea to provide opportunities for all.

And maybe some day soon we will be encouraging young people to apply for the new and improved “Sanders Grants,” which could drive a new economic vision for the nation.

Can Promise Diversify Teaching?

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By Brett Hoover

In 2013 I read a story in the New Haven Independent that hit me hard. A young football star at the predominately black Hillhouse High School in New Haven talked about the importance of having African-American male teachers because they could “relate more to the students.”

Yet he was talking in theory. In 14 years as a New Haven Public School student he’d never had a black male teacher. Not one.

Dr. Thomas S. Dee, now a professor of education at Stanford University, concluded a decade ago that students typically learn better from those who share their racial identity. Dr. Dee’s conclusions may not sit well with some or perhaps many. What is evident is that the workforce in position today is falling short of the expectations that we should all have for students today.

New Haven is hardly alone in its workforce disconnect with its students. About five-in-six students are black, Latino or Asian while about four-in-five teachers are white. Garth Harries — the Superintendent of New Haven Schools — told the reporter that the workforce “reflects the applicant pool.” As a result, the district’s teachers are largely white, primarily female, mostly suburban and — if research holds true — substantially “not prepared to deal with the growing number of diverse students in the schools.”

In short, there is an enormous need to broaden the applicant pool and diversify — in race and gender — the educator.

For the Cities of Promise — starting with New Haven, Pittsburgh, Denver, Buffalo, Peoria and Kalamazoo — comes the burning question: “What are your Promise programs going to do about that?”

At a time when fewer and fewer students are interested in studying education in the U.S., it leaves an enormous opportunity for students of color to return to their hometowns and make a huge difference for those sitting in the same classrooms where they had once sat.

As Promise programs not only bridge the transition from high school to college, they often address economic development by fostering opportunities in local businesses for those interested in returning home. Local school districts are always among the leading employers in a city and — working in conjunction with Promise programs and their college partners — there is a perfect opportunity to “hire within” by targeting and recruiting high-potential scholars and enticing them with the possibilities.

Superintendents in the Cities of Promise should never again explain a dearth of minority teachers by saying that it simply “reflects the applicant pool.” They should put some skin in the game to extend opportunities for their own graduates to educate, inspire and transform their current students.

When a city the size of New Haven — roughly 130,000 residents — has an annual school budget nearing a half-billion dollars, it can find a way to make a commitment to minority teachers and its own homegrown pool. And it can surely find a way to transform its hiring practices.


Brett Hoover — who formerly served as the Associate Director of the Ivy League — is a co-founder of Cities of Promise.

Promises Aren’t Just For The Young

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While there have been a number of Promise programs coming on board in the last year, the statewide Tennessee Promise has gained far more attention than any of them. And the impact of the program — which will fund students for the first time this fall — has reverberated throughout the Volunteer State.

Four-year schools — like the University of Tennessee-Martin — have stepped up efforts to compete for students otherwise exploring the Tennessee Promise option, which provides considerable support for those attending community college.

But now one of the two-year schools — Cleveland State Community College, tucked away not far from Chattanooga and the Georgia state line — has created a benefit for its “adult” learners (generally seen as those over the age of 25) with the establishment of the last-dollar-in Cleveland State Adult Promise Scholarship.

With the state program servicing younger students, the Cleveland State Foundation was compelled to reallocate scholarship funds for its older subset, which often faces greater obstacles in finding financial assistance.

Christy Armstrong of the Cleveland Banner spelled out the guidelines of the new program. “An Adult Promise scholarship recipient must have not been enrolled in college for the past three years or have earned an associate’s degree or higher,” she wrote.

School president Bill Seymour explained the move. “The truth is adult students are a great investment,” he wrote. “Statistics show at Cleveland State as well as many community colleges around the state and country that while adults make up a minority of the student body they actually represent a majority of the graduates. Adult students are typically more focused and motivated resulting in much higher completion rates.”

Herein lies the beauty of a Promise initiative — note only does it incentivize and motivate young students, it triggers discussion about creating opportunities for others. “Every state in the country is looking at Tennessee and what we’re doing,” said President Seymour.