Has the Promise Been Kept?

A Post-Gazette editorial sings the praises of the Pittsburgh Promise Program, a scholarship program that benefits graduates of Pittsburgh Public Schools. The piece claims that the money has been well spent and the "promise" has been kept. But is it the success they claim?

The editorial notes that the first class eligible for the Promise funds, 2008, are in college and sticking with it. The program reports that of 481 recipients they have tracked who went on to higher education, the retention rate after their freshman year was 73 percent. This figure includes trade schools, two-year, and four-year colleges (both private and public).

While that sounds noteworthy, keep in mind that, according to the Promise’s website, the class of 2008 included 1,200 students who applied to the Promise Program with 1,000 meeting the eligibility requirements (which at the time were a 2.0 grade point average and having been enrolled in Pittsburgh Public Schools since the ninth grade). Of these 1,000 students, 600 were planning to attend a four-year school and 350 were to apply to a two-year school. Presumably, the remaining 50 went to trade schools. It is unclear how many students actually received scholarships and what their current status is.

But the editorial brags about the 481 they have tracked. Of these 481 students, 46 percent or 219 attended Community College of Allegheny County and, of those, only 160 made it to their sophomore year (73 percent, which the editorial author notes is better than the 20 percent retention rate in the past).

The Promise Program may have kept more students in college by lessening the financial burden, but it cannot help overcome the inadequate learning in the City’s high schools. Did so many of the remaining graduates leave or not enter college because they were not prepared for its rigors? According to figures from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), in the 2006-07 school year fewer than 50 percent of 11th graders in seven of the District’s ten high schools scored proficient or better on the math portion of the test. On the exam’s reading section, five of the ten high schools had fewer than 50 percent of their students scoring proficient or better. These 11th graders became the class of 2008.

The editorial laments the fact that more foundations and organizations from outside the City have not contributed to the Promise Program. And why should they? Why would they want to encourage people to move from their neighborhoods into the City?

The truth of the matter is that the Promise has not lived up to expectations. It was expected to bring new families into the City schools and it has not as enrollment continues to slide. It has not caused an improvement in student performance as PSSA scores still remain woefully low. And now we find out that less than half of the first eligible class has made it into their second year of college. Clearly a promise not kept.