When Shannon Chavez was growing up, her mom always encouraged her to go to college. Chavez recognized the importance of higher education, but figured high tuition would limit her choices. For a while, her plan was to attend a community college for two years to save money.
That changed when Chavez was a sophomore in high school, and a scholarship was announced to help Pittsburgh Public School students afford college. That scholarship was the Pittsburgh Promise.
Since 2008, the Pittsburgh Promise has provided $121.2 million in scholarships to help over 8,000 students pay for postsecondary education. It opened more doors for Chavez, who put the funds toward a four-year degree at Duquesne University.
Now, a similar initiative is making its way through the Pennsylvania State legislature. The Pennsylvania Promise, introduced by Sen. Vincent J. Hughes and Rep. James R. Roebuck Jr., would completely cover tuition and fees for many Pennsylvania residents.
Pennsylvania currently ranks 47th in the nation in per capita funding for higher education. Pennsylvanians also graduate with the highest average student debt in the nation. So it’s clear that something needs to change when it comes to the high cost of higher education. Still, it won’t be easy to convince legislators to vote for a bill that’s estimated to cost taxpayers $1.16 billion.
Luckily, the Pittsburgh Promise provides a rough idea of what would happen if Pennsylvania provided free college for its residents. The two programs differ on many points, but they both have the same basic goal: boost access to post-secondary education by reducing costs. So, how does this work in practice?
Boosting college access
At the very least, granting students money to help pay for college leads to higher college enrollment. A 2017 report on the Promise’s impact finds that “as a result of Promise eligibility, Pittsburgh Public School graduates are approximately five percentage points more likely to enroll in college, particularly four-year institutions.”
Out of the students eligible to receive the Promise, only 44 percent attended college in 2005. Ten years later, that number increased to 59 percent, according to Pittsburgh Promise director of communications Lauren Bachorski. That increase has not been seen nationwide: Over those same ten years, the national college attendance rate remained around 69 percent.
A 2016 report found that Pittsburgh Promise scholars are also more likely to stay in college. This could be because college is stressful enough without the worry of skyrocketing student loan debt. Students who don’t know where their next meal will come from or how they’ll pay for housing don’t have much energy left to focus on coursework.
Kenneth Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, echoed this sentiment in a July statement to the House Democratic Committee. “How many students must drop out because they can’t afford it or because they can’t maintain grades because their energies are expended on working multiple jobs?” he asked.
Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh Promise isn’t large enough to help the city’s poorest families, says Dr. Robert P. Strauss, a professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.
“If you’re a poor black girl who was raised by her aunt in Pittsburgh Public Schools, the idea of student debt is terrifying,” he said. “There’s been this mismatch, especially at CCAC, with students coming from poor families in the Hill District. . . There’s been a problem convincing them that $5,000 [per year] is enough to get a 2-year associate’s degree.”
The ethnicity breakdown of PPS enrollment versus Promise recipients shows this mismatch. Black and multiracial students tend to come from poorer families, thanks to a history of displacement and other economic disenfranchisement. And according to 2016 data from the Council of the Great City Schools, a majority of PPS students are black or multiracial. However, more than half of the Pittsburgh Promise scholarships have gone to white students.
Strauss also argues that students from underperforming schools — like many in the PPS system — won’t do well in college anyway. “The kid who went to Pittsburgh Public Schools who got a promise, but has a C or C- average — could he/she get into the University of Pittsburgh to begin with?” he asked. “Paying for them to go to a low-quality place, I’m not sure that’s a good investment.”
Improving high school achievement
The Pittsburgh Promise is merit-based, so those C-average students wouldn’t actually qualify for it. Students must have a 2.5 GPA and 90 percent attendance rate to be eligible for the scholarship. (They could, however, be eligible for the statewide version, which is income-based.)
Chavez didn’t have any issues meeting these requirements. “It’s definitely achievable, as long as you’re a hard-working student going to school and applying yourself and showing interest,” she said. But she also attended Pittsburgh CAPA, the district’s highest performing high school. Since 2007, Promise eligibility at CAPA has remained over 90 percent.
District-wide, only 62 percent of students met the eligibility requirements in 2016, said Bachorski. On the plus side, that number has steadily increased since the Promise first went into effect. However, high school GPA, attendance, and graduation rates were already increasing before the Promise was announced. This means the improvements weren’t necessarily because of the scholarship.
Strauss blames a couple of factors for this lack of boost in achievement. First, as mentioned before, the Pittsburgh Promise doesn’t cover all costs of higher education. This means it may not be enough to motivate poor students to try harder academically.
Secondly, students aren’t thinking about college early enough. “If you don’t get kids’ expectations forming in the elementary schools, it’s too late,” he said. “Even if you’re getting a C average unless you have some sort of epiphany in high school, you won’t get your grades up.
Of course, many other factors go into how students perform in high school. When schools face funding crises, large class sizes, safety issues, and poverty-stricken students, there’s not much the promise of a college scholarship can do to help. To think it would solve all the district’s problems would be delusional. But, as Mash said in his July testimony: “Everyone should have a fair opportunity to go [to college] if they meet the admission standards.”
Supporting the local economy
Both programs can only be used in Pennsylvania, in hopes that students will stay in the state after high school. That requirement played a role in Chavez’s decision on where to go for college. “No way was I going to pass up free money to go to school out-of-state,” she said. Some of her high school friends also decided to stay in Pennsylvania to take advantage of the scholarship.
Proponents claim that this can have wide-ranging benefits on the state’s economy. As the PBPC and KRC write in a 2014 report:
“When Pennsylvanians generally become better educated, businesses enjoy a more productive workforce and higher profits. College graduates with higher salaries also buy more at local businesses. All Pennsylvanians benefit when college graduates impose fewer costs on social programs and the criminal justice system; pay more in taxes to local, state, and national government and contribute disproportionately to civic leadership and economic innovation.”
Chavez’s story backs up the idea that educational support keeps students involved in the local economy. “The Pittsburgh Promise has definitely done a lot to keep me involved in Pittsburgh, and wanting to come back,” she said. “It’s very supportive in helping students grow and be beneficial to our city and to our state as a whole.” Chavez now owns a photography business in Pittsburgh and does freelance work to support the Pittsburgh Promise.
But is Chavez’s story indicative of a larger trend? Strauss doesn’t think so.
“If you assume all the kids that go into the program get high-paying jobs and stay in the city of Pittsburgh, then the payoff is very positive,” he said. “But if you look at the pattern, they tend to move out of the city as they have kids.”
Strauss cited the Allegheny Institute, a conservative policy think tank. In a 2014 education proposal, the Institute wrote that “the City depends on net in-migration of unmarried and mostly young who are prone to leave once they get married and have children rather than put them in the public school system.”
However, the report doesn’t provide a source for this statement. And PPS enrollment actually seemed to respond positively to the Pittsburgh Promise. From 2004 to 2007, it sharply declined. But starting in the 2007-2008 school year, when the program was announced, enrollment stabilized for a couple of years before declining again, this time at a slower rate.
“People that I know now that are considering sending their children to school definitely think it’s a benefit to sending their children to PPS,” said Chavez. “There’s definitely been a lot of encouragement to some of those parents because they know they’ll have that help down the road.”
Data shows the Pittsburgh Promise also led to higher enrollment in Pennsylvania colleges and universities. A 2017 report found that “as a result of Promise eligibility, Pittsburgh Public School graduates are approximately. . . 10 percentage points more likely to select a Pennsylvania institution” for higher education.
As for what happens after those students graduate college? “You can’t chain kids to an apartment or a house so they can live here,” said Strauss. In other words, even if they stay in Pennsylvania for college, they’re going to follow the job market once they have a degree.
What does this mean for the Pennsylvania Promise?
For the Pennsylvania Promise to truly boost the state economy, Strauss says state schools need to start catering to the job market. Otherwise, students are graduating with qualifications for jobs that don’t exist.
“Propping up [enrollment] does not mean that new graduates of the State System, supported by further state funding, are going to do any better than the current students, too many of whom get teaching certificates for positions that will never materialize,” he said in an email.
Of course, there’s a problem when students graduate with degrees they can’t use. But when those students also have tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, the problem grows worse.
“Increasing student debt does not serve anyone,” said Mash in his July testimony. “It ignores the plain fact that public higher education is a public good that reaps benefits not just to the individual graduate, but also to the Commonwealth overall.”
As far as college enrollment and high school achievement go, the Pennsylvania Promise may show better results than Pittsburgh’s version has. Instead of covering up to $5,000 per year toward tuition and fees, the statewide aims to cover full tuition and fees for eligible students. Students from low-income families would get a larger boost, qualifying for additional funding to cover room and board.
Since the statewide program would cover full costs, it may be enough to persuade poor students that college is attainable — which could, in turn, motivate them to do better in high school.
“I’m all for something like that,” said Chavez. “I’m all for anything that would add to the accessibility of college for Pittsburgh and all of Pennsylvania students.”