Right here in New Haven, city government is finally gearing up to do something bold for its children. The idea is simple: Any New Haven student willing and academically able to go to college will be able to pay for it through a city program called the New Haven Promise.
What’s the motivation behind the program? It’s the economy, stupid. Politicians always bloviate on the effect of a strong education system on our economy, but Mayor John DeStefano Jr. is finally putting his money where his mouth is.
Or, rather, he’s putting someone else’s money where his mouth is. Though the mayor has previewed, announced and alluded to the Promise several times in the past year, the funding source remains a mystery. Two things, however, seem certain: The money will almost entirely be privately raised, and Yale must contribute — either directly or by coordinating alumni donations.
And why shouldn’t Yale contribute, since the economic effects could strengthen the city — and therefore Yale — for years? The inspiration for the New Haven Promise came from Kalamazoo, Mich., where a group of anonymous donors endowed a fund in 2005 that would guarantee any public school student free admission to a state university or community college — with few conditions and no debt. The Promise creates incentives for full participation in city public schools, as only those enrolled from kindergarten through 12th grade are eligible for full funding.
The Promise has single-handedly sparked the Kalamazoo economy. Like New Haven, Kalamazoo had been on the losing end of the information revolution, as blue-collar factories and plants closed and new sources of development seemed scarce. But in 2007, just one year after funds were first given out, some 800 families moved into the city, a $10 million housing development went up, and property values around the city grew.
The educational effects were equally encouraging. Socioeconomic diversity skyrocketed as 986 new students enrolled in Kalamazoo public schools in 2007, their families having moved from suburbs, 32 other states and even nine foreign countries. Perhaps more striking was the 30 percent decrease in the dropout rate in just two years, as students — and their parents — began seeing a tangible, achievable goal after high school.
New Haven, however, would not be the first to copy Kalamazoo’s success. In 2007, Pittsburgh announced a Promise of its own that pays up to $5,000 per year for four years of college to all high school graduates. Also privately funded, largely by a local hospital, the Pittsburgh Promise has yet to show complete results, since it began so recently. But at one community college, Promise students, particularly African Americans, were found to have lower dropout rates than their non-Promise peers.
This could be because Pittsburgh has smartly paired money with stronger college preparation and support. Part of the endowment for the Promise is spent on high school mentoring, SAT test preparation and college counseling. The Promise also pays for on-site support at nearby community colleges and universities to ensure students complete their degrees. New Haven should emulate all of these efforts.
But New Haven must also not lose sight of its primary goal, which is economic development. In order to attract the most new families to the system, there should be as few eligibility requirements as possible. Kalamazoo requires only a 2.0 high school GPA, while Pittsburgh requires a 2.5 GPA plus a 90 percent attendance record; neither requires anything beyond that.
If New Haven adds significantly higher GPA, attendance, behavioral or test score requirements, the Promise will turn into an academic scholarship awarded only to a talented few, muddling the brilliantly clear attraction of free college for all. Another pitfall would be a requiring demonstrated financial need — a problem in a similar Denver program — which would turn away middle-class families who may be slightly above income ceilings.
Finally, New Haven would be ill-advised to limit students to public institutions. Students should have the highest expectations of higher education, and if a student is admitted to Wesleyan or Yale, why not at least contribute the fees that he or she would get if admitted to UConn? For that matter, why limit participating institutions to Connecticut, if New Haven wants its students to broaden their educational horizons?
Mayor DeStefano is smart to pursue the Promise. With the right details — and lots of funding — he could be the mayor who fulfills it for parents, kids and more kids yet to come.
Sam Brill is a senior in Trumbull College.