The Pittsburgh Promise helped thousands of students pay for college. As costs rise, the funding is going away.

Wade Lipscomb, a recipient of The Pittsburgh Promise and owner of Triple 3 Construction, stands in the private boxes at PPG Paints Arena, where his company did the drywall and ceiling work, on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Since its founding in 2008, The Pittsburgh Promise has helped nearly 12,000 students to attend college by funneling $170 million into fees, tuition and living expenses. But in a few years that funding will dry up.

by Lajja Mistry and Emma Folts, PublicSource

During his junior year of high school, Wade Lipscomb enlisted in the military because he didn’t know how he would pay for college. That would soon change.

He learned of a new program called The Pittsburgh Promise, which would provide $5,000 a year, over four years, to him and other eligible students in Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] to attend college in Pennsylvania. Lipscomb applied to colleges with the encouragement of a school counselor, got out of his military contract and enrolled in Pennsylvania State University’s petroleum and natural gas engineering program in 2010.

“It was a big part in really getting me to think about college being an option, and then also helping me pay for it,” Lipscomb said of the Promise. He took out an estimated $15,000 in loans, which he paid off two years after graduating in 2014, and started his own construction company in 2021. 

The Promise, which launched in 2008, made college more accessible for Lipscomb, but future PPS graduates are losing one extra way to pay for their education as costs rise nationally. 

The Promise’s executive director, Saleem Ghubril, told district parents in a mid-September letter that the class of 2028 – eighth graders today – would be the last to receive the privately funded scholarship, WESA reported. The organization had said for years that it could not make commitments to future graduates as the uncertainty of available funding grew. 

The Promise has provided $171.5 million in scholarships to nearly 11,600 students. The scholarship has made a tangible difference in the lives of students who spoke with PublicSource, and PPS considers it to be one factor behind its improving graduation rates and one strategy for keeping students in the district as enrollment drops.

But the value of the scholarship has fallen over time, with the maximum annual award increasing to $10,000 in 2012 but dropping back to $5,000 in 2018. And while more students have become eligible for the scholarship, as of 2019, 40% of students in PPS still didn’t meet its GPA and attendance requirements. Students must maintain at least a 2.5 GPA to qualify.

Saleem Ghubril, executive director of The Pittsburgh Promise. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

In an interview, Ghubril said that a high school diploma is no longer enough for many residents to compete for jobs and noted that the state is home to some of the most expensive public universities in the nation for local families. 

“There’s a lot at stake, and answering it through a privately funded Promise initiative in one city, in one public school system in the commonwealth of 500, is short-sighted,” Ghubril said.

Without the scholarship, the Promise wants to advocate for a public policy solution to funding post-secondary education in Pennsylvania. College affordability has been a long-standing issue in the state, though, with no clear resolution in sight. 

What was the impact of the scholarship – and who got it?

Promise programs provide college scholarships to local students but vary in their awards, funding models and eligibility criteria. There were more than 200 promise programs in the country as of September, according to a database from the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. About 31% exclusively rely on private funding, as The Pittsburgh Promise has.

The Pittsburgh Promise is a last-dollar scholarship, meaning it covers students’ eligible expenses after they receive all other scholarships and grants. The scholarship has been one of the more financially generous offerings in the country, said Michelle Miller-Adams, a senior researcher at the institute. 

Promise programs have been shown to boost college enrollment, but there have been few rigorous studies analyzing whether they improve college completion, Miller-Adams said. A 2017 study from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that PPS graduates were more likely to enroll in college, select an in-state institution and persist for a second year because of their Promise eligibility. 

Samantha Soto, a Pittsburgh Promise alumna, sits for a portrait in her backyard on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2023, in the South Side. The Promise allowed her to enroll in Indiana University of Pennsylvania after high school, a route she said she likely couldn’t have continued if it weren’t for the Promise softening tuition hikes. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

In all, more than 60% of Pittsburgh Promise recipients have graduated from college or are currently enrolled, Ghubril told PublicSource in a mid-October interview. While Ghubril “will never be satisfied” with that statistic, he said it aligns with national norms for educational attainment. The Promise measures its results against data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, analyzed by Pitt researchers.

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