Do You Believe You Can Fly?


By Patricia Melton

Belief. The American Council on Education struggled to explain their recent findings that — in spite of rising high school graduation rates and increased access to college grants, both federal and institutional — low-income students enrolling in college took a significant dive in just five years following the recession.

The report’s top explanation was indeed, belief. “The rapid price increases in recent years, especially in the public college sector, may have led many students — particularly low-income students — to think that college is out of reach financially,” it said.

There are other possibilities. Students from the economic “bottom-fifth” might believe that the value of college has declined. They may think they might not finish or recognized that the for-profit schools that have been feasting on the Pell-eligible are largely scams. The Council even suggests that their own findings — a double-digit enrollment drop from 56 percent to 46 percent — may be wrong.

But let’s zone in on a primary belief. What happens if students and families were aware that college was in reach for everyone in their city? What if they had assistance in navigating federal forms and financial incentives for strong performance in high school?

Well, even without a national study, I’d be willing to wager that the Cities of Promise have bucked this trend. What I can do is give figures from New Haven, Conn., home of the New Haven Promise.

For the last four years New Haven Promise has been tracking the household incomes of the families of those scholars who’ve accepted the scholarship. Since that benchmark Class of 2012, the number of scholars from household with incomes of at least $30,000 have risen by more than 30 percent. Those from households with less than $30,000 of income? Try a rise of 63 percent! From 54 in 2012 to 88 in 2015.

Now while those students are a bit more likely to discontinue their studies, those who persist have a higher mean grade-point average than their wealthier counterparts.

Showing a path and instilling a belief? Maybe it isn’t the explanation, but it sure won’t hurt!

Patricia Melton is the Executive Director of New Haven Promise

Blazing The Trail To A Degree


Earlier this month at the national PromiseNet conference in Kalamazoo, Mich., there was a lot of discussion of fundraising for Promise scholarship programs.

How do you set an appropriate fundraising goal? What is the best way to attract unrestricted gifts for program management? Are matching grants a thing of the past? Is there a way to build a sustainable and reliable source of funding through creative taxation? What is the best ‘pitch’ to lock down a major funder?

Of course, all of those are important questions, particularly for a program just getting off the ground, but there might be even more important initiatives to undertake to get a campaign off the ground or extend the shelf life of a movement as it builds capacity.

I’m going to call it the “Cornerstones of College Affordability.” If you don’t have a dime for scholarships, you can still create dollars for scholars through maximizing pre-existing sources. And if you have scholarship dollars, there are ways to leverage them to make sure that students get up to three times as much money from sources other than the Promise dollars.

Here are the five cornerstones:

1. Federal aid — There is a lot of unclaimed money for low-income students through the Pell Grant program. Students who qualify for Pell can get close to $6,000 annually to cover expenses and many scholarship programs use that as part of the equation in determining a scholarship award. Every program should encourage and assist students and families to complete their FAFSA applications in both accurate and timely fashions.

2. Financial literacy — Those who are first-generation students can find unhappy surprises — not just the hidden costs of college, but also the deadlines for payment. Choosing the right college from the start can make all the difference in getting that diploma. Having access to those who can explain the process and its expectations, even before the selection a school, can help families steer clear of the roughest waters.

3. Institutional aid — Those programs who are forking over checks to colleges have some leverage to create universal benefits for its Promise scholars, particularly if they can demonstrate patterns of increased success in comparison to the broader student body. But you don’t have to wait to begin that conversation. Without question, the earlier students complete applications to college, the stronger the chance they can tap into existing university scholarship pools.

4. Other scholarships — Most places in the U.S. have existing scholarships intended for local students and there are also regional and national award programs as well. The problem is that most students are unaware what is out there. If someone associated with a program can provide resources, the affordability puzzle becomes more complete. There are students who are making college debt-free by taking advantage of multiple opportunities.

5. Paid internships — Not only are students much more likely to find full-time work after college after taking advantage of paid internships while in college, they can also make use of summer work to defray the costs associated with college. Any program that works with the local business community to create such opportunities will produce better results and retain more students after graduation.

No, none of this helps a Promise program with its overhead, but each one helps improve outcomes for students. A promise can mean a lot of things, including the promise to help young people blaze that trail both to and through college.

Bernie’s Big Idea


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.