Despite administrators’ hopes, fewer high school seniors applied for New Haven Promise scholarships this year.

Program officials said Thursday that 351 students applied to New Haven Promise — the Yale-funded college scholarship program — by the Monday deadline, down 20 from last year’s 371 applications. Announced in November 2010, the Promise program awards college tuition scholarships to New Haven public high school graduates who meet certain academic and disciplinary standards and matriculate to an in-state institution. Despite Promise administrators’ predictions that the program would see a boost in participation and efforts to spread a “college-going culture” in the city’s schools since the scholarship program’s introduction, the 5.4 percent decline in applications marks a setback for the program.

Administrators of the program, which is funded primarily by Yale and administered by the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, told the News in February that Promise was poised to significantly increase the number of New Haven students receiving its scholarships in the coming years. Betsy Yagla, the communications and research coordinator for New Haven Promise, said Thursday that it is unclear why the number of applicants fell.

“It’s hard to tell why fewer kids applied, but our assumption is that because last year’s application was on paper, kids were handed it and some filled it out instinctively. This year the application was only online, so kids had to take the initiative to apply,” Yagla said.

Yagla said while administrators had hoped to see an increase in the number of applications this year, they were not disappointed at the decrease because the program’s goal is to increase the number of students who qualify for and accept the scholarship, rather than the number who submit applications. She added that these figures cannot be determined until administrators evaluate the seniors’ applications at the end of the school year. To be eligible for full funding, applicants must maintain a minimum 3.0 GPA, achieve a 90 percent school attendance rate or higher, demonstrate good behavior in school and complete 40 hours of community service.

Over the past year, the program has distributed over $93,000 to students in tuition money through 115 scholarships.

In a February email, Adriana Arreola, interim director for New Haven Promise, told the News that she hoped to see a 25 to 50 percent increase in the number of students qualifying for the scholarship.

Of last year’s 371 Promise applications, 115 qualified to receive a scholarship.

City Hall spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton ’04 said it is necessary to create a “college-going culture” in New Haven in order to grow Promise participation, and creating such an academic environment takes time.

“A college-going culture is something that we know starts very young — it’s something that we need to start growing from pre-K all the way to grade 12,” Benton said. “And that’s not something we can do overnight.”

Benton said education officials are taking steps to instill college ambitions in New Haven schoolchildren. She cited door-to-door advocacy efforts to raise awareness of the Promise program and school curriculum changes at the pre-K–8 level as evidence of this push, as well as the city’s partnership with College Summit, a national nonprofit that helps school districts prepare low-income students for the college application process.

Arreola said to achieve a “college-going culture,” students and families should be thinking about college before high school. To that end, she said, school administrators introduced “Pathway to Promise,” a program for pre-K–8 schools that is designed to adapt the skills that College Summit is teaching to a pre-high school setting, last fall. Yale-New Haven Hospital committed $500,000 annually for the next four years to fund this effort.

“If you look at the test scores, graduation rates and internal trajectory rates — which show the number of kids graduating on time — you will see that the rigor in the classroom and academic achievement are steadily increasing,” Benton said. “I think we are on a path to lower the achievement gap.”

While Promise distributed approximately $93,000 in scholarship money this year, Community Foundation CEO William Ginsberg said the size of scholarship awards will also grow because of the way the program is structured. The Promise program is being implemented in stages — graduating seniors are eligible for scholarship money based on how long they have been in high school since the program’s announcement, Ginsberg said. Those who accepted the scholarship last year received 25 percent of the full award, this year’s seniors will be eligible for 50 percent, and next year’s seniors will be eligible for 75 percent before full funding kicks in the year after they graduate, he added.

New Haven Promise was announced on Nov. 8, 2010 at a ceremony at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School on College Street.