High School Students To Receive College Tuition Aid Through 'Promise Scholarship'

This piece comes to us courtesy of Education Nation's The Learning Curve blog. Douglas Harris, 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, writes.

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.