Promise Program Sends a Better Message

Member Group : Allegheny Institute

The Pittsburgh Promise college scholarship program, in an abrupt departure from its original plan, announced changes to the amounts available to graduating students who qualify for funds. The Promise will now offer more dollars to students who score well on standardized tests. Does this change represent a movement toward a performance based rewards system—something we have argued it should have done from the outset?

The Pittsburgh Promise is a scholarship program whose main intent was to reverse the declining trend in enrollment experienced by the Pittsburgh Public School District. While it has not succeeded in this endeavor, as enrollment has fallen by more than 4,000 since the Promise was introduced, it has helped graduates of the District pay for college. The requirements are modest at best as an eligible student must graduate from the District, or one of its charter schools, with at least a 2.5 grade point average and a 90 percent attendance rate. Furthermore the student needs to have been in the District continuously since the ninth grade, a City resident, and be accepted into a Promise approved college or university.

If all of the requirements are met, the student is eligible for up to a total of $20,000 in scholarship money over four years.

When the program was first announced, it was hypothesized that there may not have been enough money in the endowment to meet demand. UPMC started the process by donating $100 million to the endowment. The endowment has increased to $145 million. Scholarships were awarded beginning with the class of 2007. Four years later, Pittsburgh Public Schools have graduated thousands of students yet the Promise reports that just over 1,000 students are currently making use of the scholarships. Is increasing the amounts available an attempt to entice better performing students to stay in Pittsburgh schools or enhance the incentive to have more good students move into the district?

If a student scores at the advanced level on the reading portion of the state’s PSSA exam, they will earn a bonus of $5,000; an advanced score on the writing section is also worth $5,000, while an advanced score on the math section is worth $10,000. All told, the bonuses could reach $20,000. Even if the student falls short on the PSSA scores, they will have a chance by taking the SAT exam. A score of 600 on any section of the SAT exam (reading, math or writing) will also trigger the same bonuses. Is tying the bonus to high scores on the state’s PSSA or the SAT an attempt to increase those scores? If so, it is a truly worthy objective.

Has the board at the Promise Program decided that students respond well to incentives, that they take pride in accomplishments, and that hard work is to be rewarded? Will rewards for merit begin to pay off?

While there will be critics, the Promise Program directors are to be congratulated for a common sense step to actually improve academic performance as opposed to simply rewarding showing up.
FrankGamrat, Ph.D., Sr. Research Assoc.Jake Haulk, Ph.D., President

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