The nation’s college financial aid system is badly broken and getting worse. Students from mostly low and middle-income families now face nearly $1 trillion in college-related debt and, despite making such large investments, prospects are still low for college graduation. President Obama and congressional leaders have tried to address this problem by maintaining support for the federal Pell grant and making changes in loan programs.
But is it time for a more fundamental rethinking of financial aid?
Some students in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) may soon have a good answer. Last week, first-time ninth graders in 18 MPS schools gathered in assemblies to learn that they were eligible for a $12,000 college scholarship as part of a new program called "The Degree Project." By promising the scholarship funds to students many years before they enter college, The Degree Project is considered a “promise scholarship.”
In MPS, the promise scholarship works like this: If the selected ninth graders earn a 2.5 GPA or higher, attend class regularly, and graduate from high school, they will receive the money, which is enough to cover all tuition and fees for a two-year degree and more than a full year of tuition and fees at a four-year public college.
Working with the program’s generous funder, the Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation, and MPS leaders, I helped develop the program and will be studying how it benefits the nearly 2,600 recipients of the promise.
The rationale is simple. High schoolers, while having high expectations for college, also believe they can’t afford it. College seems out of reach. Imagine telling someone to climb a mountain, but without giving them equipment or training. Placed in this uncertain situation, few will climb very far.
In the case of college, the current financial system is part of the problem. It provides no clear commitment of financial support until students have nearly finished high school. Students hear vague messages about the federal Pell Grant program - and the hefty loans many students take - but that is about all. In other words, students are told, “We might help you climb the mountain, but just get started on your own and we’ll get back to you.” This is a recipe for failure and disappointment.
Promise programs like The Degree Project do the opposite, providing concrete commitments of funds that do not have to be repaid, and they do it years in advance of the college years. The programs tell students what they have to do to make it up the college mountain and the specific amount of rope and food they will be given after they climb the first thousand feet.
The promise isn’t just about money. Getting to college is a complex process, especially for teenagers whose parents didn’t go to college themselves. The courses can be difficult. Financial aid and college applications require byzantine paperwork and complicated rules. A vast array of programs and resources are available to help students navigate the process, but they are often unaware of them.
Recognizing these problems, The Degree Project will remind students about the scholarship rules, tell them regularly what they have to do to stay on track, and direct them to additional resources to help get them there. Reinforcing these efforts, MPS is simultaneously launching a much larger effort to improve the college-going cultures and opportunities in their schools.
The promise scholarship idea is not entirely new. In my home state of Michigan, all students who graduate from Kalamazoo Public Schools receive a full ride to any public college in the state. Pittsburgh, Pa. and El Dorado, Ark. have followed suit, and many other districts are exploring the idea.
Unfortunately, those who have studied these programs have been stymied in trying to learn how well they work. Should the programs be adopted nationally? At this point, it is hard to tell.
This is part of what makes The Degree Project unique. To really know how any program works, the evaluation has to be built into the program before it even starts. A recent report on the Pittsburgh Promise called for an approach that selects students or schools at random to receive the promise. Why at random? Because this is really the only way to be sure that differences in educational outcomes are really due to the promise. The Degree Project has followed this lead and will be the first real test of the promise scholarship idea.
I congratulate The Degree Project promise recipients and hope that they are all able to meet the requirements to use the scholarship funds. And kudos to the Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation and Milwaukee Public Schools for helping these students and putting a very “promising” idea to test.
With their efforts and foresight, we will soon learn whether promise scholarships might be a viable alternative to our creaky old financial system and that’s something that will help all students in Milwaukee and across the country as they climb the college mountain.
Douglas N. Harris is Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and co-director of the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study of financial aid.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated that the promise scholarship would cover more than a full year of tuition and room and board at a four-year college. In fact, the money will cover more than a full year of tuition and fees, not room and board, at a four-year college.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.