Money isn’t everything. Five years ago, donors offered to pay college tuition for all graduates of public schools in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Students can use the offer at any public college or university in the state. While 81 percent of graduates receive a scholarship, only 54 percent have earned a degree or remain on track to graduate, according to the Hechinger Report.
College-funding programs exist in 15 to 20 cities, including Denver, Pittsburgh, New Haven, Connecticut and Hammond, Indiana.
In Pittsburgh’s program, the percentage of scholarship recipients who return to their public four-year colleges after freshman year trails the state average by nearly three points, said Saleem Ghubril, executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise, which launched in 2007 with a $100 million commitment by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The picture for community college students on Pittsburgh Promise scholarships is brighter: 70.3 percent return for their second year, about 10 points above the national average. Graduation data are not yet available because the program is so new.
In Denver, half of the 199 students in the first class eligible for that city’s promise-style program came back for their fourth year of college, said Rana Tarkenton, director of student services at the Denver Scholarship Foundation.
Most promise-style scholarships reward residency in a school district, city or state, rather than academic merit, though some set minimum grade-point averages or college-entrance exam scores. The effect is to encourage less-prepared students to try college.
To keep their scholarships, Kalamazoo Promise students must be enrolled full time in a two-year or four-year college and maintain a C average. The program’s graduation rates are lowest at two-year colleges, as they are in the rest of the U.S: only a third of the Class of 2006 who attended community college had graduated by the fall of 2010, program statistics show. The following year’s class didn’t do much better. Nationally, just 11.6 percent of students at public two-year colleges complete degrees within six years.
Many students aren’t prepared for the academic or social challenges of higher education, said Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
“It’s especially hard for students who come from poor areas and don’t have support networks,” said Jones, one of the founders of Twenty-First Century Scholars, a promise-style program founded in Indiana in the 1990s. “Just giving them the opportunity to go to college isn’t enough. They need support once they get there – mentoring, ways for students to connect.”
Students who are the first in their family to attend college have to learn how to navigate the system, said University of Michigan freshman Adwoa Bobo, a pre-med student on a Promise scholarship. While her tuition is covered, she has to pay for room, board, books and other expenses.
“The hardest adjustment for me is being able to manage my time, and being able to study effectively,” Bobo said. “In high school, I was able to pass through without studying too much. In college, you cannot get good grades without taking notes and studying every night for each class and reading your books thoroughly. You must work hard. I’ve been told that college was harder than high school, but you never know what they mean until you’re here.”
Students who live at home while attending community college or a four-year commuter school can earn a degree at a very low cost in dollars, but those who aren’t willing to invest their time and energy aren’t going to get very far.