Mayor John DeStefano Jr. told students Monday night that the weak economy should be used as an opportunity to improve the lives of city residents through major reforms in education, taxation and immigration.

Addressing a gathering of about 25 Yale College Democrats at St. Anthony Hall, DeStefano discussed the “Promise Program,” his new initiative to encourage New Haven’s high school graduates to attend college.

“There is nothing worse than a community that defines itself by how people are different,” DeStefano said.

The Promise Program would fund the in-state college education of any New Haven student who maintains at least a 3.0 grade point average and a 90 percent attendance rate throughout high school, DeStefano said, adding that Pittsburgh and Kalamazoo, Mich. have implemented similar programs.

The program aims to encourage families to move to New Haven to enroll their children in the city’s public schools, DeStefano said, adding that he will announce the details of the Promise later this week.

The mayor also addressed New Haven’s recent education reform efforts, saying that because his administration maintains relatively amicable relations with the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers union, the city has been able to begin improving the worst of New Haven’s public schools.

“[We have been able to] throw out all the rules in the lowest-performing schools,” the mayor said.

Unlike recent school reform attempts in New York City and elsewhere, which have focused on improving students’ standardized test scores, DeStefano said, New Haven school administrators will supplement their evaluations of students’ test scores with other criteria, which may include new surveys that allow students and parents to critique their experience with the public school system.

Four Yale students interviewed said DeStefano’s plan for the city’s public schools is a step in the right direction.

“It seems like the way New Haven is doing [education reform] very different in a lot of the best ways,” said Sarah Cox ’14.

As for the city’s budget difficulties, DeStefano said New Haven’s deficit is in part because the city draws a disproportionate amount of its revenue from property taxes, which are lower because of the fall in the housing market, hitting New Haven’s budget especially hard.

DeStefano said hotel stays, which the city does not tax, are one possible source of additional revenue. New Haven remains one of few municipalities that do not tax hotel stays, he said.

With major statewide elections less than two months away, DeStefano also addressed the Connecticut gubernatorial race. Though DeStefano had endorsed businessman Ned Lamont SOM ’80 in the Democratic primary, the mayor said party nominee Dan Malloy would be an asset to New Haven if elected.

“Dan gets it absolutely,” DeStefano said, noting that Malloy’s experience as mayor of Stamford gives him direct knowledge of the problems facing Connecticut’s cities.

The mayor also touched on immigration reform. Though the recession has diverted attention from immigration in recent months, the mayor said New Haven remains in a position to welcome immigrants. He said the Elm City Resident Card, which gives all immigrants an official form of identification, is an example of New Haven’s successful outreach efforts.

“DeStefano has really prioritized making sure that everybody who lives in the city is treated with equal respect,” Yale Dems President Ben Stango ’11 said

Now in his ninth term, DeStefano was first elected mayor of New Haven in 1993.