Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Promise of a College Scholarship Transforms a District: So-Called Promise Scholarships Shape Dreams for Students and Encourage Changes in Educator Beliefs about Students

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Promise of a College Scholarship Transforms a District: So-Called Promise Scholarships Shape Dreams for Students and Encourage Changes in Educator Beliefs about Students

Article excerpt

This past summer, LeBron James was in the news for something that had nothing to do with basketball or his moves from Cleveland to Miami and back to Cleveland. In August 2015, the LeBron James Family Foundation and the University of Akron announced a partnership that could put as many as 2,300 Akron kids through college. As part of the foundation's I Promise program, scholarships covering tuition and general fees will be made available to students involved in programs sponsored by the James Family Foundation; the first potential recipients will graduate high school in 2021.

Promise scholarship programs such as the one developed by the basketball superstar or even the Scott's Tots program devised by the fictitious Michael Scott of television's "The Office" are a distinct type of college scholarship. Promise programs are place-based scholarships, generally tied to a city or school district, offering near-universal access to all living in the place. While promise programs share some characteristics with other scholarship programs, they're unique because they seek to change communities and schools.

The promise movement is in its infancy, born in November 2005, when Kalamazoo Public Schools superintendent Janice Brown announced that a group of anonymous philanthropists had essentially guaranteed college scholarships to all high school graduates in Kalamazoo going forward. Scholarships covered full tuition and fees at any of Michigan's 44 public community colleges and four-year universities. Scholarships are awarded to all Kalamazoo graduates, regardless of merit or need, with few strings attached. This unprecedented strategy was intended to revitalize the region and encourage families to remain in the Kalamazoo school system. The Kalamazoo Promise drew widespread media attention and caught the eye of many interested in community revitalization across the country, including civic leaders in the small, southern Arkansas town of El Dorado. Within two years, in January 2007, a similar promise program was born in El Dorado.

Underlying such promise programs is the belief that having access to a guaranteed college scholarship will encourage students to remain in school, encourage families to remain in a community, and change how educators work with students. Based on our analysis of student performance data in El Dorado since 2007, we learned that this promise program did improve student achievement throughout the system as early as elementary and middle school (Ash, 2015). Interviews with El Dorado teachers and school leaders also revealed that a genuine culture shift occurred in El Dorado after the Promise began.

According to Sylvia Thompson, director of the El Dorado Promise since the program's inception, more than 1,800 graduates of El Dorado High School have received the Promise Scholarship through fall 2015. Thus, starting in the fall semester of 2007, about 200 students in each El Dorado High School graduating class have benefited directly from the program. As of this writing, we are gathering and organizing college enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse to rigorously assess the extent to which the Promise program has improved college participation and completion rates for El Dorado students.

The Promise comes to El Dorado

In spring 2006, after reading about the Kalamazoo Promise, community business leaders in El Dorado met with Murphy Oil Corp. executives to propose starting a promise-like program in El Dorado. Murphy Oil, a Fortune 500 company, is headquartered in El Dorado and has a history of funding special programs in the school district. These civic leaders were persuasive, and, in December 2006, Murphy Oil's board of directors approved a $50 million gift to create the El Dorado Promise, a universal college scholarship program for El Dorado School District graduates.

Unlike traditional forms of financial aid, which typically have merit and/or financial need requirements, the El Dorado Promise scholarship is available to all students, provided they have been continuously enrolled in the district since at least 9th grade and graduate from El Dorado High School. …

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