Is the Pittsburgh Promise Delivering?

Jul 24, 2013

A recent policy brief from conservative think tank Allegheny Institute for Public Policy states that the Pittsburgh Promise is falling well short of its goals, and that its mission should be completely re-focused. But this isn’t the first time the Allegheny Institute has taken on the Pittsburgh Promise.

In 2009, a year after the Promise began, a report was released questioning whether the premise of the program, which gives college scholarships of up to $10,000 a year for qualifying students in Pittsburgh Public Schools, would be effective.

Now, after five years of scholarships and the first batch of Promise students graduating college, Allegheny Institute President Jake Haulk said it hasn’t worked.

“Two important goals were to stop the outflow of students from the school system and to try to attract more back in by making scholarships available and two to improve educational performance. In neither case have they been able to achieve that objective,” he said.

Enrollment in the district has declined more than 12 percent since 2006. Still, Pittsburgh Promise officials say it’s too early to call the program a failure. When it started in 2009 they knew their goals were lofty.

“We said then that reversing those macro-level, long-term downward trends in terms of enrollment in the district and population in the city, that that would be a long-term prospect,” said program Executive Director Saleem Ghubril. “We thought it would take about five years before population and enrollment stabilize. We anticipated that in the second five-year cycle we would begin to see growth.”

Ideological Differences

Ghubril said improvement is slow, but it’s improvement nonetheless. He said the consistent nay-saying of the Allegheny Institute in regard to the Pittsburgh Promise stems from a major ideological difference.

“Basically their conclusion is, ‘You cannot fix public education, and therefore you should give up on trying and voucher everybody,’” Ghubril said. “So they come from a political position that says the answer to fixing schools is to eliminate public schools, take tax dollars, give them to private entities and let them educate our kids.”

Haulk does recommend taking money that would go toward scholarships and offer vouchers for kids to go to a private K-12 school in the area because Pittsburgh Public Schools are in poor shape, and not getting any better.

“The performance in the classroom, as measured by PSSA results and SAT scores certainly is no better and, in some schools, is even worse than it was six years ago,” Haulk said.

Plus, he said, the Pittsburgh Promise isn’t helping improve achievement for a large number of kids.

“The kids that are getting their scholarships probably would have gone to college and gotten money to go anyway," Haulk said. "They had hoped that by holding this, up to $40,000 in scholarships, they’d get more kids to finish school and do better school work, but that isn’t working."

Ghubril said that simply isn’t the case. Half of the students who qualify for the Promise have no expected family contribution to their college education, with another 20 percent having a very low expected contribution.

“I know, anecdotally, that many of them will not have gone to college had it not been for the support of the Promise,” he said, “and I can predict with a fair amount of certainty, that the large majority, had they gone to college without the help of the Promise would have had to borrow enormous sums of money and would have graduated with bone-crushing debt.”

Too Easy?

Another area of concern for the Allegheny Institute centers on eligibility. In order to qualify, students must earn a grade point average of at least 2.5 and have an attendance record of at least 90 percent.

“It is too easy, and even as easy as it is there are still a lot of kids who are disqualified because they don’t attend classes, and that’s horrible,” Haulk said.

In the 2011-2012 school year, 47 percent of high school students were chronically absent, which is an issue officials are working to address. As for the GPA, Ghubril said there is research that shows a 2.5 GPA is a sort of breaking point — students who earn that or higher perform stronger in post-secondary education.

He said the program isn’t an easy handout because a student still has to work to be accepted into a college or university.  

“We at the Promise are not the experts on whether a kid is college-ready or not, that’s what the admissions officers at the respective colleges and universities are supposed to do," Ghubril said. "They are the ones that determine whether a kid is eligible or not."

But that brings up another point of contention. Haulk said by keeping the standards low, students are not applying themselves as much as they would if the standards were stronger.

“In fact, I would have an SAT score minimum if you want to get the full amount of the scholarship,” he said. “You’ve got to score at least enough on an SAT score to get into a four-year college. I don’t know that giving $10,000 a year in scholarships for people to go to business or art schools is really what they should be doing.”

But supporters of the Promise say that view misses the point completely. The Promise has sent more than 4,000 to college over the last five years, with the first batch of four-year graduates — about 400 students — graduating in 2012. Prior to that, a couple hundred had graduated with two-year degrees and other certificates.