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When Promises Are Not Enough

Promise scholarships have been regarded as key to economic growth in many states and municipalities. The idea of providing funding for college-bound students within a designated area as an incentive for remaining in that same area post-college seems harmless enough.

However, evidence taken from reported outcomes of Promise programs such as  Georgia Hope show that these merit-based scholarships have contributed to racial and socioeconomic gaps between Black and White students in terms of college access. Are Promise scholarships fulfilling their intended purpose if they benefit only the most privileged populations? This Black former Promise scholar says no.

Promise programs are known to reinforce inequality between Black and White students as a result of the eligibility requirements. Georgia Hope, for example, was created in the early 1990s to provide scholarships for high-achieving students in the state, and has since disproportionately advantaged middle- and upper-income White students as a result of its selective nature and merit-based criteria. Georgia Hope and many other Promise programs were initially concentrated in areas where economic development and “brain-drain” were major concerns.

The illusion of the success of these programs has contributed to a rapid push by other states and municipalities to create and expand Promise programs across the country.  The Pittsburgh Promise, a program I am personally connected to, was part of this expansion.

The employment history of Blacks in Pittsburgh began with use of them as strikebreakers in the growing manufacturing industry before the First Great Migration. The Black population rapidly increased after the First and Second Great Migrations. When deindustrialization occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, a shift in the economy from industrial to service-based contributed to the mass exodus of Blacks from Pittsburgh. Not only did the city’s overall population decrease considerably, but the Black population also decreased (from 105,000 in 1970 to 94,000 in 2000).

Public schools in the city suffered in part due to this population decrease, as lower enrollments meant less financial support. Additionally, due to White flight, Black students became overrepresented within the underfunded public schools, reflected in Pittsburgh’s persistent issues with residential and educational segregation.

A recent report by A+ Schools noted a gap between Black and White students eligible for the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship, with 83 percent of White students eligible compared to 51 percent of Black students. As a Black woman, Promise scholar and Pittsburgh native, I feel disappointed and guilty about the current state of educational opportunities for Black public school students in my hometown. While I benefited from the scholarship, so many other students that share my background are not receiving the opportunity.

In 2007, I became one of the first recipients of the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship. The program was created at a time when college affordability was a major concern in Pennsylvania. Initial goals centered on the revitalization of the local economy by encouraging more public school students to not only go to college, but to remain in the area post-college. If funds were available for high school students to attend college, they would ultimately matriculate into and graduate from college, hopefully becoming members of Pittsburgh’s workforce.

However, it has not been that simple. To be eligible for the scholarship, students must meet specific criteria, such as having at least a 2.5 final grade average and at least 90% attendance. To use Promise funds, scholarship recipients must attend a participating college or university within the state and maintain at least a 2.0 grade average once enrolled at an institution. But what if a student had attended underfunded and segregated schools, was part of an underrepresented group, and lacked the means for additional financial and educational support? Would they qualify for the scholarship without major changes to the very institutions that may have failed them and many others?

When I was offered admission to my top choice, the University of Pittsburgh, all I could think about was how excited I was to have the opportunity. However, that excitement quickly turned to concern as I questioned how I would be able to afford tuition as a lower-income student. Without the Promise scholarship, the debt I accrued would have been significantly more. That award, along with other need-based support such as the Pell Grant and the local NEED scholarship, were instrumental in financing my education.  The Promise scholarship was the reason I could afford to attend a top-tier institution in my state. It led to a chain of events that ended with me receiving two degrees, and I am now pursuing a third at an Ivy League institution.

Still, the Promise Scholarship has limitations. It will never be enough to erase the consequences of the city’s lack of investment in the education of Black students. What does my success mean if other Black students like myself are not receiving Promise program benefits at the same level as White students? Even with the creation of We Promise, a mentoring program that supports Black male students, the Pittsburgh Promise cannot do its job until the roots of Pittsburgh’s educational issues are addressed and the program is accessible to all students in the city – which, according to the A+ Schools report, it is not.

Merit-based scholarships alone cannot solve Pittsburgh’s economic and educational problems. The Pittsburgh Promise scholarship is only one piece of the puzzle, and it alone cannot fix Pittsburgh’s inequality problems relative to race, economics, and education.

A solution should not involve eradicating the Promise scholarship for eligible students, nor should the program begin at the high school or even middle school levels, since by then it may be too late. Remedies should involve providing more support for Black students and the schools they attend, exploring additional need-based options for financial aid, and creating other avenues to success for city students. Blacks are the second-largest racial group in the city of Pittsburgh, and creating more ways to secure the educational futures of Black students should be a priority – especially if the goal of the Promise program is to support an educated workforce in the city.

Understanding the issues that contribute to why Promise scholarship eligibility rates differ between Black and White students begins with an understanding of the racial, economic, and educational dynamics of Pittsburgh and the city’s history. Historical context is key and should be considered when creating new initiatives. Until then, the Pittsburgh Promise and other merit-based initiatives will not create the kind of access or outcomes people want to see in Pittsburgh. They will act as mere bandages – you may stop the bleeding, but the wounds of racial discrimination and educational inequality will not heal.

Brittany Robertson is a second year doctoral student in the Ed.D Higher Education program at the University of Pennsylvania.

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