College dreamers meet reality

In 1988, 59 fifth graders in a low-income Maryland school were promised a college education by two wealthy businessmen, recounts the Washington Post. The college “dreamers” were given transportation, tutors, field trips, camps and an advisor who followed them through school.

One would become a doctor. One would become a cellist. One would become a UPS driver. One would kill herself. One would kill his father. One would become a politician. One would become a cop. One would become a drug dealer.

Forty-nine graduated from high school or earned GEDs, surpassing the graduation rate in the area, and almost half enrolled in college. But only 11 “dreamers” earned bachelor’s degrees; three of those went on to earn advanced degrees. Another 12 students completed trade school.

Most of the successful “dreamers” were motivated students before the scholarships were offered. Others, growing up in violent, drug-ridden neighborhoods, followed their peers, not the dream of college.

Many of those who made it to college failed their classes and gave up. That’s typical of similar programs. Nationally, “dream” scholarships have increased high school graduation and college enrollment rates, but have not produced many college graduates, according to the “I Have a Dream” Foundation.

Success can’t be measured by a college diploma, concludes Tracy Proctor, who served as the counselor for the 59 students into adulthood. (When the drug dealer was ready to retire, Proctor got him into trade school.)

The doctor and the pharmacist are successes, for sure. But so are the UPS driver and the Prince George’s police officer. They may not have college degrees, Proctor says, but they have a sense of purpose and ambition.

Where did that drive come from? The series profiles Darone Robinson, the most surprising success story in Proctor’s eyes. Almost kicked out of high school for fighting, Robinson almost flunked out of college. But he couldn’t face telling his mother that he’d failed. So Robinson worked harder, raised his grades, earned an IT degree and now lives a middle-class life with his wife and children. Without Proctor’s help, he might not have made it through high school. Without the scholarship, he might not have started college. But what got him through was something that can’t be given.

About Joanne


  1. From Wikipedia:

    87% of the US population age 25 and above has a high school diploma (or equivalent)
    30% has a bachelors degree
    A bit more than 10% has a professional or advanced degree.

    From this class:

    49/59 graduated from high school (or got a GED): 83%
    8/59 got bachelors degrees (but no more): 14%
    3/59 got professional or advanced degrees: 5%

    Given the demographic, I expect that this was better than what would have happened. It would be nice to check the other classes in that school at that time (say, the other 5th grade classes and the 4th and 6th grade classes) to see how much better these kids did.

    I suspect that they did non-trivially better than would have been expected, so the outcome should probably be viewed as positive, even if it didn’t meet the target of the sponsors (which was college degree for all the kids).

  2. And it appears that what was really helpful was Procter. So if a millionaire just funded a helper for every class, there to wave money around and provide support, maybe that’s all that is needed.

    • Maybe.

      Or maybe the (perceived as real) possibility of getting a college education mattered, too.

      It would be simple to find out (just run ten more of each of these possibilities). I doubt that we will.

      • There are all sorts of these cases out there. They are called the “dream” scholarships because there are so many of them.

        So the evidence is already in. The evidence is what I was describing. Read up.

  3. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I read all 3 articles (I was a 5th grader in Montgomery County when these kids hit the news and remember the fuss) and what I found most interesting is that the UPS driver, who is married with 3 kids and makes 84K a year, still feels like a failure just because he doesn’t have a college degree. This guy is in better financial shape than many people his age with Master’s degrees, but he feels bad about not going to college!

    It seems like the ‘free college for students” programs may just promote the college cargo cult.

    On the other hand, a full-time mentor to act as a father-figure, to sit in class to provide discipline, and to follow up at home with disadvantaged kids…. maybe that WOULD be a good investment! (It seems from the article that many of the kids who DID go to college did it with scholarship aid from the university, not the benefactors…

    • So long as the guy and his family are doing well, how far short he fell from what he “should” have accomplished is a minor issue.  If meeting expectations is everything, the illiterate welfare mother raising 12 academically-failing kids on public assistance is doing wonderfully so long as that’s all she aimed to do.

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        Exactly. It seems like these “Free college” programs are missing the point. College ISN’T an automatic path to success, and a student who has a strong work ethic, can delay gratification and who is willing to persevere can succeed without college. But that goes back to what Cal was saying about the important thing being the full-time role model/mentor/disciplinarian rather than the scholarships themselves.

        Also, I noticed that some of the successes (the cop, the runner, etc.) were from immigrant families with 2 parents at home– these kids were probably not all that borderline to begin with…

  4. This reminds me of The Office episode where we discover that years ago Michael Scott promised a class of tots (Scott’s Tots) that he would fund their college. The day of reckoning arrives, and Michael Scott doesn’t have the money on hand to follow through on the promise.

  5. Here’s a URL for a summary of the Scott’s Tots episode:'s_Tots

  6. Or maybe they just needed more effective K-12 teachers?

  7. What a fascinating story, and there are so many variables to consider before drawing conclusions as to the efficacy of the scholarships. Thanks for posting this, Joanna.