A Responsible Promise

responsible-promise

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.

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