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D.C. Eyes 'Promise' Model to Increase College-Going Rates

Political leaders in the District of Columbia are considering a plan to provide successful high school students a big financial incentive to graduate and pursue a college degree—up to $60,000 toward their college expenses.

The D.C. Promise proposal was introduced last summer by City Council Member David Catania and was approved by the council's education committee in December. On Thursday, it was debated by the council as a whole. It is scheduled for a vote on Feb. 4.

With a price tag of $60 million a year, the program would give grants to students who had been in the school system for at least grades 9 to 12 and graduated from a regular or charter public school. The money could be used to attend a four-year private institution, a public university, a two-year community college, or a career-training program.

The largest scholarships would go to students with the greatest economic need, but students from families with incomes of up to $215,000 would be eligible for some aid under the proposal. The city scholarship money would be available to students to fill in gaps after other (non-loan) financial aid and grants were exhausted.

Other cities, such as Kalamazoo, Mich, have embraced the promise concept. The Kalamazoo Promise was established in 2005 and pays up to 100 percent of the cost of attending a Michigan state college or university, with the amount depending on how long the student has been enrolled in the school system. While the D.C. model would use public funds, the Kalamazoo program is supported by a small group of anonymous private donors.

With the population of the city of Kalamazoo at 75,000, there are approximately 500 high school graduates a year. As of 2012, there were about 500 graduates who had received college degrees in the first seven graduating classes of the promise program, according to an article in The New York Times.  Although they had the financial support, some students were academically unprepared and had difficulty completing a degree in four years, the story explained.

In Connecticut, the New Haven Promise provides up to $2,500 a year toward college tuition for students who graduate in good standing with a 3.0 GPA and 40 hours of community-service in high school. . The program is funded by Yale University and local foundations and businesses. Last year, there were 486 applicants for the scholarship,a  40 percent increase over 2012, with particular growth among males and African-American students.

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