By: Shayna Cohen

In 2017, the annual cost of college in the United States, on average, was $22,432. Many students without independent support or in low-wage jobs struggle to afford higher education. Some college financing systems provide loan-free options, such as the Pell Grant offered by the federal government to low-income students, and scholarships offered by promise programs. 

While the Pell Grant system is nationwide, promise programs vary in structure, targeted demographic, and effectiveness. They differ from Pell Grants by issuing a residency requirement: only students in a specific region are eligible. The stipulation allows promise programs to adapt to the needs of local and state communities. Assessments suggest a positive correlation between promise programs and increased graduation-rates for low-income students; consequently, funding should be directed toward promise programs and away from less effective finance models.

Michigan launched the country’s first promise program, the Kalamazoo Promise, in 2005. Funded by private donors, the nonprofit program subsidizes college tuition for all students in the Kalamazoo Public School District. Funding is based on residency in the state and applies to any public college in Michigan. Both the value of residency and partnership with state universities exemplifies commitment to community. The Kalamazoo Promise is a first-dollar scholarship meaning students can combine funding with other sources of aid. As the first promise program, and one of the most successful, the Kalamazoo Promise is the leading  model for comparison.

The Pittsburgh Promise, founded in 2007, is structured differently. Unlike Kalamazoo, the program is financially supported by private foundations and functions as a last-dollar scholarship, meaning students cannot receive funding until exhausting all other scholarships and grants. In addition to a residency requirement, the Pittsburgh Promise sets merit-based qualifications: a 2.5 GPA and a 90 percent attendance record. These requirements can be more difficult for lower-income students to reach, especially if they are restrained by having to work while in school, meaning that the students benefiting from the program are not always the originally intended demographic. 

The two programs statistically yield different results. Since 2005, the Kalamazoo Promise has helped increase the number of postsecondary degrees by 10 percent. The majority of the increase can be attributed to four-year institutions partnering with the program. The Pittsburgh Promise boasted stronger results in attendance statistics, effectively increasing the probability of enrollment in a four-year program from 0.42 percent to 0.49 percent.

In 2017, the Pittsburgh Promise attracted criticism due to requirement changes. Now, it no longer covers room, board, and books; the funding only applies to four-year universities, and students who receive other scholarships are not eligible. Additionally, only students educated in Pittsburgh since kindergarten receive the maximum scholarship. The unintended consequence is a restriction on low-income students’ access to funding, a step away from the success of the Kalamazoo Promise.

 Pittsburgh’s system is increasingly similar to Pell Grants, where funding and requirements disadvantage low-income students. Pittsburgh may experience negative impacts on the local economy and education system if access to higher education is restricted further for these students. More programs like the Kalamazoo Promise are crucial in combating these effects. Funding programs similar to the Kalamazoo model can provide needed support to low-income and minority students

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