Michigan State University sophomore Lauryn Scott, 19, reads to her cousin, Harmoniee Ryan, 2, at home in Oshtemo. Scott is among students benefiting from promised tuition.


Dec. 29, 2007, 11:45PM

Programs that promise tuition are springing up for public school grads


Kalamazoo, Mich.: Funded by private donors with four-year tuition-and-fee guarantee at a Michigan state-supported college or university, for graduates of Kalamazoo Public Schools.

Hammond, Ind.: High school students of parents who live in Hammond are eligible for $30,000 in tuition assistance, for any public or private college or university in Indiana, provided they have a 3.0 grade point average or a 2.5 GPA with a 1,000 SAT score on reading and math or a 21 ACT score on reading and math. Supported by casino revenues.

Pittsburgh: Paid for by initial grant of $100 million from University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, covering all graduates of Pittsburgh Public Schools. Applies to Pennsylvania state schools and all postsecondary schools in Allegheny County.

El Dorado, Ark.: Funded by Murphy Oil Corp., the plan offers graduates of El Dorado High School up to five years of tuition and fees at any Arkansas public university.

CHICAGO — John and Tashia Morgridge two weeks ago donated $175 million of their personal wealth to fund college scholarships for thousands of Wisconsin high school graduates.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center this month committed $100 million to help all future graduates of Pittsburgh Public Schools go to college.

And in Kalamazoo, Mich., which triggered a nationwide movement two years ago with a privately funded guarantee to pick up the four-year tuition tab for any graduate of that city’s school system, officials are almost awestruck by the results — a dramatic increase in student enrollment, lower dropout rates and small but encouraging signs of economic development in a struggling city.

“There’s been a bigger buzz than we thought there would be,” said Bob Jorth, executive administrator of the Kalamazoo Promise. “Given the fact that we’re in Michigan and there
aren’t a lot of jobs, we’ve been pleased.”

Awaiting conclusions

Tuition guarantees are gaining momentum across the nation, with more than 20 cities either establishing such programs or planting the idea in hopes that private donors or taxpayers will pony up the money to help offset staggering increases in college costs.At the same time, these programs also aim to attract new businesses and spur home ownership.

It is too early to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of these fledgling programs, scattered around the country in places such as El Dorado, Ark., and Hammond, Ind. While the Kalamazoo Promise has generated tremendous interest, economists point out that many communities do not have the private wealth that Kalamazoo has. And school officials caution that the programs, by themselves, guarantee only that a student will be able to go to college.

“What we do not know is whether the percentage of kids going to college and staying it through and graduating will be very good,” said Mark Roosevelt, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Big reform effort

The Pittsburgh Promise, as it is known, is intended to provide tuition guarantees for students attending Pennsylvania colleges and universities, starting with the 2,500-student graduating class of 2008, Roosevelt said.The $100 million commitment from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is a so-called challenge grant, designed to encourage other donors to kick in another $150 million.

Roosevelt said the Pittsburgh Promise is only one piece of a larger school reform effort designed to improve the quality of graduates of the city’s 28,000-student system.

The early results from Kalamazoo suggest that most of the 360-plus students who took advantage of the Kalamazoo Promise are at least surviving college. Jorth said the rate of student retention — those who return to school after their freshman year — is about 60 percent, a little above the national average.

One who returned for her sophomore year is Lauryn Scott, who is majoring in marketing at Michigan State University. “This is a great opportunity for me,” Scott said. “This is saving me a lot of money.”

Investment in opportunity

The Kalamazoo Promise guarantees full payment of four years of tuition and fees at any of Michigan’s 44 public colleges and universities for graduates of Kalamazoo Public Schools. Tuition support varies, depending on the number of years that graduates spent in the system. The guarantee is paid for by anonymous private corporate donors, widely believed to include the family of Stryker Corp., a medical products supplier.John Morgridge, chairman emeritus of Cisco Systems Inc., and the endowment he established with his wife, Tashia, would award about 2,000 grants of $1,000 to $5,000 for the 2008-09 school year, and about 3,000 grants annually after that.

At the very least, tuition-guarantee programs are an investment in opportunity, making college a reality for students who would not otherwise be able to attend college.

According to a report from the College Board, average tuition and fees, through the 10-year period ending with the 2004-05 school year, jumped 51 percent at public four-year colleges and universities.

Bob Watson, the public school superintendent in El Dorado, Ark., said the percentage of his schools’ students going to college leaped this year from 55 percent to 83 percent.

“What it’s doing for our kids is unbelievable. These are kids who never thought they’d be going to college.”

At the same time, the number of students enrolling in El Dorado Public Schools has jumped in the past year, Watson said.

(Article courtesy of the Houston Chronicle)

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