How Promise Programs Offer a Path to College Affordability and Aim to Reshape Communities
Wednesdays were usually Justin Alamo’s favorite day of the week.
As a third-grader at Conte West Hills Magnet School in New Haven, Connecticut, Alamo always looked forward to swimming classes on Wednesdays. Except for one week that sticks out in Alamo’s memory.
“I remember being so angry that day because they canceled swimming,” Alamo, now a student at the University of Connecticut, said. “Our teacher told us we had to go to the auditorium and listen to people talk about a program called New Haven Promise.”
Alamo remembers receiving a packet during the assembly outlining how to qualify for the college promise program scholarship that covered up to 100 percent of tuition to colleges and universities in Connecticut.
He also remembers thinking he still had plenty of time before seriously considering college and figuring out how to pay for it. When he got home, still upset about missing swim class, he handed the packet over to his mother and didn’t think about it again until he got to middle school.
By the time he was in seventh grade, Alamo, who is Puerto Rican, said he felt comfortable in his mostly Hispanic neighborhood of Fair Haven but began noticing the lack of opportunities in his low-income community. His parent’s home had also gone into foreclosure, and Alamo’s family was struggling financially. They weren’t alone—the city of New Haven averages one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, and more than 25 percent of residents live in poverty.
“School was always interesting and easy for me, so there was no question that I was going to college,” Alamo said, “but that’s when I realized, ‘oh, I may not have another opportunity to go to college if I don’t have the money.’”
A model from Michigan
College promise programs offer scholarships to high school graduates that cover tuition and fees to higher education institutions in the graduate’s home state. There are more than 400 programs in thirty-three states and Washington, D.C.
According to a 2016 study, these programs aim to reduce poverty and crime, increase employment, and improve a region’s overall economic development.
However, despite the positive reaction to promise programs, there is little research showing if promise programs actually reduce poverty, and crime rates vary because outcomes depend on how programs are implemented. However, recent studies show that promise programs offering coaching and other methods of financial support have the largest impact on low-income students’ graduation rates.
Each promise scholarship has different eligibility requirements, including a residency requirement in a specific school district and a minimum grade-point average. Promise scholarships usually follow one of three payout structures: Students receive ‘first-dollar promise scholarships’ before other types of financial aid, ‘middle-dollar scholarships’ are applied after other grants or scholarships are awarded, and ‘last-dollar scholarships’ fill tuition gaps after all other forms of financial aid are applied.
Kalamazoo, Michigan, implemented the first promise program in 2005. The Kalamazoo Promise was funded by a group of anonymous donors and launched by Kalamazoo’s former school superintendent. The scholarship was open to all graduates of Kalamazoo Public Schools residing and enrolled in their school district for a minimum of four years.
Kalamazoo, like New York City, Chicago, and several other cities, has been historically impacted by “white flight” first experienced in the 1930s. The Kalamazoo Promise model aimed to invigorate the city by incentivizing residents to stay in their school district and possibly inspire others to move in.
In Kalamazoo, 61 percent of students who used the scholarship were of free or reduced lunch status from 2006 to 2021. During that same time period, 82 percent of eligible Asian students, 66 percent of Latino students, and 63 percent of Black students used their promise scholarship within six months of graduating.
Researchers, politicians, and even President Barack Obama considered the program a success. The first kindergarten class to benefit from the Kalamazoo Promise graduated from high school in 2019. By that time, nearly 7,000 Kalamazoo students had benefited from a promise scholarship. Since 2006, about 90 percent of graduating high school students have qualified for a promise scholarship which could help finance attendance to 58 Michigan colleges and universities, and 80 percent actually used the scholarship.
Soon after the early successes in Kalamazoo, other promise programs, often with similar missions to increase school completion rates and improve regions, launched in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Denver, Colorado, and throughout New England, Connecticut hosts three promise programs, including the New Haven promise program, and like other similar programs across the nation, each has additional eligibility requirements and varying funding structures from public and private sources. Recently, state-funded promise programs in states like Oregon and Nevada have seen budget cuts, making scholarships contingent on available funds.
Response to rising college costs
While the popularity of promise programs has increased, so has the cost of attending higher education institutions. In the last twenty years, the average tuition to private and public universities has nearly doubled, and in-state tuition has almost tripled.
The rising costs have led students to finance their education through loans. However, recent studies have shown that student loan debt disproportionately impacts students of color, further widening the income gap between racial groups.
In 2021, President Biden, recognizing the inequitable access to degree-granting institutions, added nationwide free community college to his spending bill. However, the proposal was dropped from the bill, making financial aid programs like promise scholarships more attractive for high school students, like many living in New England, where some of the most expensive colleges and universities are located.
No two programs are the same, and that lack of uniformity can often be confusing for students and families and impact participation from the students most in need. Rachael Conway, a researcher for the New England Board of Higher Education, decided to investigate New England’s promise programs after working as a college access coach in Oregon, helping students learn how to finance their college education.
“Oregon Promise was instituted in 2015 as a free community college scholarship, and I was seeing many of my students being really excited about it, and really drawn in by it,” Conway said.
She said her students who opted to enroll in community colleges often did so to take advantage of the promise scholarships, regardless of whether the school was a good fit or offered as a desirable field of study.
“Many of my students already had the Pell Grant and the Oregon Opportunity Grant, which is Oregon’s need-based scholarship, that pretty much covers tuition and fees at community colleges in the state,” Conway said, “so what they were actually getting from the Oregon Promise at the time was maybe minimal.”
Examining results in New Haven
Conway admits she was skeptical about seeing if New England promise scholarships offered different results, but after surveying all nine promise programs in New England, she said she was impressed to see that the scholarship programs, like New Haven Promise, were striving to be much more than a scholarship.
“New Haven Promise has been around since 2010, so they’re just deeply rooted in the community at this point,” Conway said. “Some of their practices go beyond just making college more affordable.”
According to Conway’s findings, New Haven Promise, the oldest promise program in the region, is also one of the most equitable and proved to have a more holistic approach by providing additional services like tutoring, mentoring and alumni networking sessions, and internship placement opportunities for students.
Yale University funds the New Haven Promise scholarship and other initiatives, such as tutoring and mentoring, are funded by donations. New Haven Promise is the only program in Connecticut that uses a ‘middle-dollar’ format, allowing students to use the scholarships after receiving financial aid, such as a Pell Grant, to fill in any financial gaps or pay for non-tuition related expenses.
New Haven Promise scholars are 90 percent students of color, and 70 percent are first-generation to attend college. The program has few but strict eligibility requirements, including a cumulative 3.0-grade point average, a 90 percent attendance rate throughout high school and 40 hours of community service. The requirements alone narrow the pool of qualified students, but according to data collected by New Haven Promise, the results justify the requirements.
A 2022 donor briefing states that in the first five years of implementing the scholarship, New Haven Public School graduation rates increased from 58% to 80% and college enrollment for the district went from 56% to 64%. Since its inception, New Haven Promise has handed out scholarships to 2,300 students and distributed $25 million. As of 2021, more than 600 students have earned a bachelor’s degree from colleges including UConn, Quinnipiac University, and Yale.
“One of the things that make New Haven Promise successful is our commitment to seeing our scholars to, through, and back,” New Haven Promise President Patricia Melton said.
It’s a refrain that Melton regularly uses, emphasizing the program’s mission to ensure that students attend local colleges or universities and galvanize them to return to their communities after graduating from college.
As a high school student, Melton left her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, after earning a scholarship to attend a boarding school in New England. Through the years, Melton said, she has thought a lot about leaving behind all the connections she had in her community at a young age just to get a better education.
“People say ‘you made it out,’ but that’s the wrong way to think about it. The beauty of promise programs is that you don’t have to leave,” Melton said. “Colleges are supposed to be partners, but oftentimes they drain the talent out of the community.”
Melton said that New Haven Promise tries to inspire its students to stay in their communities by offering mentoring programs, community service opportunities and internship placement at local businesses.
“By helping them create a network in their own community, we make it so they don’t need to make that choice to leave. There doesn’t have to be a trade-off,” Melton said.
Jorgieliz Casanova, the K-12 program manager for New Haven Promise, said she didn’t need to make that trade-off. It’s one of the reasons why she decided to join New Haven Promise once she graduated from Albertus Magnus College as a New Haven Promise scholar. Casanova said she also wanted to offer students the same level of support she had as a scholar.
“I have the very unique experience of being a recipient, and now I’m able to help with the development of the program,” Casanova said. “New Haven Promise has been one of the most solid and consistent things that I’ve ever had.”
Justin Alamo can relate. He also credits New Haven Promise with inspiring him to become a high school teacher after graduating from UConn, completely debt-free next year.
“I’ll be honest, I probably would be on a different career path if I had to pay off student loans because I would be so stressed out about making money,” Alamo said. “But New Haven Promise gave me a chance to pursue education, as a Puerto Rican male, in a world where educational equity isn’t always the thing.”