New Haven Promise is sending more city kids to college in Connecticut—which has led some educators to question whether the scholarship program is inadvertently limiting their students’ chances for success.
The question—which has been raised over the past year—arose again in a recent meeting of the boards that govern New Haven charter schools in the Achievement First network.
Now Promise’s board will consider the question at its next meeting, according to New Haven Mayor Toni Harp. Harp, who sits on the board, said she sees merits on both sides of the issue.
At the recent Achievement First board meeting, a member asked Amistad High School Principal Chris Bostock about a trend among graduating seniors: At this year’s signing day, where students announce their college choices, more kids seemed to be choosing large, in-state universities instead of out-of-state private liberal arts schools. Only six of 41 graduating students chose to go out-of-state. Twenty-nine students chose to attend public Connecticut colleges and universities.
The board member asked if that change was due to New Haven Promise, the city’s college scholarship program. The program offers up to full tuition for students who live in New Haven, attend New Haven charter or traditional public schools, get good grades—and stay in Connecticut for college. This year’s graduating high-school seniors are the first to be eligible for 100 percent of the scholarship, which has been phased in since its creation in 2011.
Bostock said New Haven Promise is one factor among financial pressures that led kids to attend in-state universities—universities where they are less likely to succeed.
“Over the long run, we see more success with small, private liberal arts colleges,” not large public institutions, Bostock said.
Low-income students are nearly twice as likely to succeed at private colleges and universities: 44 percent of low-income kids graduate from private institutions in four years, versus 24 percent at public institutions, according to an analysis by the Council of Independent Colleges. That gap improves over a longer period of time: 68 percent of low-income students graduate from private institutions in six years, compared to 61 percent at public institutions.
AF employs an alumni team to track and help its high school graduates through college. Smaller institutions such as Franklin & Marshall in Pennsylvania have been “much more supportive” of first-generation college-going, low-income AF students than large public institutions have been, Bostock said.
While many students eye out-of-state liberal arts schools, New Haven Promise “can pose a competing pressure” when families are trying to decide where to send their kids, he later said.
Dacia Toll, CEO of Achievement First, phrased that concern more strongly later in the meeting, which took place last week.
“I love New Haven Promise,” Toll said. “But there’s no doubt” that Promise is influencing students to choose in-state schools.
“I personally would love to have [Promise] change the incentive structure,” she said.
Toll (at center in photo) suggested New Haven Promise, which is funded by Yale University and the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, open up scholarships to kids who leave Connecticut—as well as offer more money to those who choose private colleges.
As of now, Promise offers up to $2,500 per year for students who attend not-for-profit private universities in Connecticut. Meanwhile, it offers up to full tuition at in-state public colleges and universities.
Khadijah Muhammad (at right in photo) said her son, Shehu, who graduated from Amistad High School in 2013, had his heart set on studying science and engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. Out of the 4,000 undergrads, 81 percent earn degrees in six years—a rate that’s much higher than most large public Connecticut universities.
“He really wanted to go to WPI because of the smaller environment,” she said. But she would have had to come up with $30,000 per year, which she couldn’t afford. Shehu ended up attending the 10,000-student Central Connecticut State University, where just over half of students earn degrees in six years. Promise dollars come in only after federal financial aid. Promise is paying close to $1,000 per year to cover the amount of tuition not covered by federal aid; it does not cover room and board or fees.
Muhammad said Promise should extend scholarships to kids like Shehu who want to study outside Connecticut.
“They work for it,” she said—Shehu had a 3.67 GPA in high school. “Why should they be penalized because they choose an out-of-state school?”
Keeping Young People Here
The question of whether Promise should expand to serve kids who leave Connecticut has come up over the past year.
Former Mayor John DeStefano, who created New Haven Promise and pitched it to funders, cited several reasons behind the in-state rule. The goal of Promise was to “develop New Haven human capital—and at the same time, keep that capital in state and in New Haven in particular,” he wrote in an email to the Independent.
“Our feeling was that making out-of-state institutions a recipient of these dollars would diminish the likelihood of retaining graduates in New Haven as they would be less likely to return home,” he recalled. Keeping scholarships in-state was an intentional design of the program, not an aspect Yale or the public institutions ever weighed in on, he said. He also said Promise sought to support local state institutions and to stem the total cost of the program.
In its first three years, Promise has handed out nearly $1 million in scholarships. The number of participating students has gone up each year. Yale has pledged to fund the program at a cost of up to $4 million per year.
In part prompted by Toll, New Haven Promise Executive Director Patricia Melton (pictured) raised to her board last year the question of whether Promise should expand to serve kids who head out of state. The board, which includes the mayor and Yale’s president, discussed the matter last year and also this year, after a change of leadership at Yale and the city.
The board plans to discuss the matter at its next meeting, according to Mayor Toni Harp.
Harp didn’t take a stance on the matter. On the one hand, she said, “What you want to be able to do is to make all kids [can] go to the college that they’d like to attend and not be forced to go to one that they would not like to attend.”
On the other hand, she said students might be more likely to leave the state if they head away for college. She cited her own three kids as an example: “All three went to college out of state, and only one came back.” Meanwhile, over 90 percent of kids who attend Connecticut state universities remain in-state, she said.
She was asked about the argument that Promise is inadvertently setting kids up for failure by steering them toward large public universities. She disagreed: Connecticut public universities “specialize in providing an appropriate and supportive setting for first-generation college-goers,” she said. The federal education department does not collect college graduation rates by income level, according to spokeswoman Aurora D’Amico; the state did not provide those rates as of press time.
After the first year of Promise in 2011, DeStefano called it “disappointing” that only 62 percent of Promise’s first class of participants stayed in the program through to a second year.
Melton said Promise does not have any up-to-date number quantifying student retention. She said retention is hard to boil down to one percentage for various reasons: Some kids defer and transfer into Promise later; some take a semester off then go back to school; others lose Promise funding due to sinking grades, but remain enrolled in college.
Instead, she offered this chart (pictured) outlining how many students have enrolled in “year 1” (right after high-school graduation), “year 2” (two years after high-school graduation) and “year 3.” The chart shows the number of students using Promise has gone up. It doesn’t offer a retention rate, however—because it doesn’t identify whether the students enrolled in year 2 are the same as were enrolled in year 1.
Yale University President Peter Salovey could not be reached for comment because he was traveling, according to an aide. “Yale was pleased to support the New Haven Promise as envisioned by the City to encourage New Haven students to go to college and make their lives and careers in the city and region,” said Yale spokesman Tom Conroy. He declined to say whether Yale would support a change.
Will Ginsberg (pictured), CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, which oversees Promise, said he’s open to changing the out-of-state policy.
Ginsberg, who sits on the Promise board, said it needs to consider “how does New Haven Promise and the broader community create the environment that will bring our most talented kids back to New Haven to stay and build their lives here and contribute to our city going forward?”
“I’m not convinced either way that the current policy serves that goal,” he said. He said it’s not “intuitively obvious” that students are more likely to return to New Haven if they attend UConn instead of UMass, or Trinity College instead of Columbia or Princeton universities.
He said Promise is making a strong effort to keep its scholars connected to the city through summer job opportunities and an alumni network.
Mom Cheryl Cox said she hopes Promise considers expanding to out-of-state schools. Her daughter, Leslie Nicholson, graduated from Amistad High this year. Leslie got into several out-of-state liberal arts colleges and ended up choosing UConn instead.
UConn has a much higher six-year graduation rate (83 percent) compared to other state universities. (Southern Connecticut State University’s is 49 percent.) UConn has lots of supports for disadvantaged students, but Cox said she’s still worried about her daughter thriving in such a large school.
Leslie (pictured) had her heart set on St. John’s University, a 21,000-student private university in New York, Cox said. The annual tuition there is $55,000. At the time Leslie was applying, the family had no family contribution because her mom was out of work. With the financial aid package St. John’s offered, Leslie would have had to take out loans of $25,000 per year—an untenable prospect.
Leslie ended up choosing UConn. Promise offered her $4,128 per year toward her tuition, which covers tuition not paid for by federal financial aid.
Cox said she’s grateful to Promise for opening the door to UConn for her daughter. It would be better, though, if Promise aided her dream of going to a smaller school, where she feels her daughter would receive more support, she said.
“New Haven Promise is a great thing,” she said. “I just wish they would allow the kids to still take the money out of state.” By directing Promise dollars to Connecticut schools, “You kind of limit the kids as to where they can go.”
New Haven Superintendent Garth Harries said if “resources were no object,” he would “absolutely” support expanding Promise to serve students who leave the state for college.
But he said for most New Haven public school students, “the question is not in-state versus out-of-state. The question is college or not college.”
“I think the most important thing is to recognize the contribution” Promise is making by “making college possible in the first place,” he said.