Money isn’t everything

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.

About Joanne


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Doing some planning, my wife and I talked to a trust officer years ago. One of the questions was what amount of support for college the trust should supply, presuming there was anything in it, if my wife and I were gone.
    Dollar for dollar? The kids earn a buck and the trust pays a buck. Two for one, one for three? Thing is, said the professional, their experience is that kids don’t value what doesn’t cost them much. So they party on and….

  2. There are a couple of things about the Promise program in Kalamazoo that have irked me (and I have relatives benefiting from it). First, this program makes a distinction between public school kids and everyone else. It is essentially an enrollment-boosting program for the Kalamazoo school system. Second, there is no means testing, so rich and poor alike get the same funds. Put these two together and it seems like a waste of philanthropic dollars. (The donors are anonymous although I understand that in Kalamazoo everyone knows who it is.) I cannot imagine an organization with a lot of money asking themselves how to get the best social benefit for their money and concluding that buying college for everyone who goes through a particular public school district (prorated based on how many years a student is there) would be the best idea. What about kids who can afford to go anyway, what social benefit is there in paying their way? What about kids who would not go if they had to pay their way otherwise and only go because of the free money? What about kids who will do well in college but are homeschooled? Why is there less social benefit in sending money their way than in funding a public school kid?

    To me it just doesn’t make sense except in light of ulterior motives. These ulterior motives are not sinister, but there is an underlying dishonesty in the whole mess. I think the underlying idea is to boost the business environment of Kalamazoo by making the public schools look very attractive; to boost enrollment in Kalamazoo schools at the expense of neighboring communities, homeschool options, and private schools.

  3. “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.”

    This statement is nonsense. In 1969, most of my peers (17-18 year olds) and I came from a poor, rural area. We had few to no “social support networks.” We attended a small, community college that was in the process of transitioning to a four-year college. We attended college full-time and worked full-time jobs. None of us needed “support,” “mentoring, ” and “ways to connect.” All of us graduated in four years with a degree. No one “gave” us the opportunity. Instead, we saw the opportunity and took advantage of it. College has not changed. What has changed is the culture, the education (specifically, the lack of education) that most students receive in K-12, and the students who are attending college.

  4. tim-10-ber says:

    Picking up on what anon said – yes, the culture has changed…one from holding students accountable and actions having consequences to heaven forbid we harm the child’s ego…how will anyone build the drive, desire, fortitude, work ethic to work for something, to earn something if no one holds them accountable? if the parents are not going to do it then the educators must but they don’t…so, now we have a problem…

  5. When I was in college, I worked as a tutor for the biology core course. One girl I tutored in particular stuck out in my mind. She was a Navajo, the first in her family to attend college, and her dream was to become a doctor for the Indian Health Service. She was very bright but completely unprepared academically for the rigor of the pre-med curriculum. Here she was never having had a decent high-school level biology class in with a bunch of kids who’d completed AP Bio at some of the top high schools in the country. She did manage to scrape by a passing grade in the course, but I’m not sure whether she ever finished the pre-med requirements or got into med school. And if she had to give up her dream of being a doctor, it’s a real shame because it wouldn’t have been for lack of potential.

  6. I’m with anon; my small-town school didn’t have a guidance counselor and my state university had almost none of the “support services” now available (student-run tutoring was about it) and those of us willing to work did fine. We were not, however, passed along without regard to achievement, in 1-12, we were explicitly taught the Puritan work ethic (not necessarily under that name) and we were explicitly taught study skills like note-taking, outlining, summarizing and study/research methods. Crimson, the student you mentioned sounds like a mis-match case who might have been a better fit in a less high-powered college setting; I remember a black columnist saying that his child would not be allowed to consider any college where he was not within one sd of the mean test scores.

  7. The Navajo girl I tutored was very bright- I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she had good SAT scores (I never asked her). What she really needed was a year or two of intensive “catch-up” work. All the stuff she should have gotten in high school but didn’t.

  8. The service academies have prep schools for kids, often from their enlisted ranks, who need the kind of catching-up I think you mean. I think their programs are for one year only. My understanding that the option is for bright, motivated kids who can be brought up to speed within a short period, after which they enter the corresponding service academy.

  9. The one boy I know of who completed a pre-enrollment year before enrolling at a service academy was a strong football player. He had attended a prep school before the PG year, and I’m fairly certain the year wait before enrolling primarily allowed him to grow even larger, and thus improve his football skills. It wasn’t for academic reasons, although students from other schools may need a year to catch up.

  10. I think the prep schools are also used as a way to increase URMs at the academies, although I have known of a number of cases where neither athletic nor racial/ethnic/gender considerations were relevant. It is my understanding that their original purpose was to prepare outstanding enlisted personnel who needed to fill some gaps in order to be ready for the academies (in the days before affirmative action and athletics, as presently constituted).

    I certainly have no problems with the original purpose and think the concept could be used by some of the philanthropic endeavors. However, I don’t see it working well beyond the group of kids who are very motivated and whose abilities and preparation indicate that they can be brought up to real college-speed within 2 years. It doesn’t fit everyone; it’s the old saw “if everyone’s special, then no one’s special.”

    Large-scale progress depends on better discipline and work ethic on the part of students and families and better curriculum, instruction and school/district administration. It’s ridiculous to allow a situation that warehouses kids for 13 years without demanding anything of them (even civilized behavior) and not providing suitable curriculum and instruction for all students. (that means ending the fantasy that the needs of all kids can be met in heterogeneous classes)

  11. I agree with Anon. Colleges/universities seem to act as babysitting services for young adults now. I didn’t have any “assistance” other than a brother who drove me to see a college one time. My parents had zero interest in any of their children attending college and did not help us at all. My brother joined the navy which eventually put him through college, my sister worked full time and then put herself through in her mid 20’s while working full-time and I worked on campus and used loans to put myself through a traditional 4-year school (all in the 1990’s). I think we succeeded because doing so was a form of rebellion, and we weren’t going to waste our own money either. I don’t recommend neglect as a way to get your kids to college and take it seriously, but being responsible for yourself makes your grow up really fast.