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Denver Promise Gets Boost From Cost-Benefit Study, Fine-Tunes Its Focus

A new evaluation of Denver's promise scholarship program shows encouraging results as students are able to leverage additional dollars to fund their college education and become contributing taxpayers. And now, the program is expanding its emphasis on career technical education pathways in hopes of improving success for the lowest-performing students.

The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, based in Washington, and Development Research Partners of Jefferson County, Colorado, released a study Monday that determined the Denver Scholarship Foundation's work adds $6-8 million in additional earnings to the regional economy each year.  Every dollar spent on a student who graduates with support from the foundation, researchers found, yields nine times that amount in the local, state, and federal taxes.  

The foundation, which blends private and public resources, provides college counseling at "future centers" in Denver public high schools, gives about 1,600 college scholarships to qualified students each year, and offers ongoing counseling once students get to college to help them get to the finish line.

About 76 percent of scholars are persisting or have graduated since the program was established in 2006, "We have a model that actually moves poor kids to and through college, which is unique," said Nate Easley, the executive director of the foundation, in a phone interview.

Students can qualify for an average annual scholarship of about $2,800 at one of 31 partner colleges in Colorado by attending a Denver high school for four years, maintaining at least a 2.0 grade point average, and demonstrating financial need (150 percent of Pell eligibility, about $70,000 in household income for a family of four).  Students also have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and three additional scholarships, which often can help them come up with the additional money to fund their higher education. The partner schools award an average of $2 in additional financial aid for every $1 awarded by the foundation.

Still, it's tough for some kids at the lower-end of the academic spectrum to make it through a four-year degree program so Easley said the foundation is starting to emphasize short-term career technical education pathways.

The foundation discovered that students with less than a 2.75 GPA failed in college at higher rates than those with better grades. So, now students with 2.0 to 2.75 GPAs will be allowed to get scholarships to go straight into a certificate program. If successful, they can apply for three more years of funding to pursue a bachelor's degree. Or, if they can earn 24 credits with their own funding, students can apply for the Denver Promise scholarship in their second year of college.

"We tend to care so much about kids it's hard to do," said Easley of the changes to the program. "On the other hand, if we allowed our hearts to get in the way of the research and we give the scholarships to students and they wash out, they are in a much worse situation," leaving with debt and without a degree.

While many other promise programs are focused on four-year degrees, Denver has seen demand in the local marketplace for certificates and associate degrees and decided to include both college and CTE as part of its emphasis. "We are mavericks on this," said Easley, adding that representatives from Atlanta and San Diego have expressed an interest in replicating Denver's model.

Other promise scholarships have modified their qualification criteria in recent years, as promise programs have expanded across the country and demand has grown.

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