For Abigail Lutton, the $40,000 in scholarship funds she received from the Pittsburgh Promise means she’s not drowning in debt after earning an economics degree from Penn State University.
While attending Brashear High School, the Promise funds motivated Lutton and her classmates to work for good grades. “I think it definitely gave people hope that the dreams they had were a possibility,” said Lutton, 24.
Now Lutton is an executive administrator in the Allegheny County Controller’s Office, but the Promise remains an important part of her life. As president of the Pittsburgh Promise Legacy, an independent alumni group that helps to fundraise for the Promise, Lutton is leading efforts to raise $20,000 for the fund by May.
Meeting that mark would be a minute step toward extending the future of the scholarship fund that has helped finance college or trade school for nearly 8,200 high school graduates since 2008.
The Promise has only committed to paying for college through Pittsburgh’s class of 2028 — with $61 million still needed to fulfill the pledge. That means qualified students currently in grades 3-12 in Pittsburgh Public Schools, Wilkinsburg schools and charter schools in the city can count on Promise funds to help pay for college or trade school. But students in grades K-2 don’t have that assurance.
Whether funding will be available for future students who earn a minimum 2.5 GPA and attend school 90 percent of the time is a question presently lacking a definitive answer.
To be clear, Promise officials are not saying the sun will set on the Promise after the class of 2028.
“I feel confident that we will be able to keep the Promise going, but we can’t guarantee it,” said Maxwell King, a Promise board member and CEO and executive director of the Pittsburgh Foundation*. King said a longer commitment would not be prudent based on the Promise’s current funding situation.
The Pittsburgh Foundation has been a major champion of the fund, contributing $10 million in the first decade and committing another $5 million over the next 10 years. It’s the only local foundation to make a second 10-year financial commitment to the Promise to date.
The Promise is set up as a supporting organization of the Pittsburgh Foundation, which allows it to receive administrative services from the foundation that would cost significantly more if the Promise was an independent entity. The foundation also appoints two-thirds of the Promise board members.
Looking at the next 10 years, the Promise is adjusting to its reality without the cushion of the $100 million pledge from UPMC that kickstarted the program. “We are in need of identifying new donors,” said Saleem Ghubril, Pittsburgh Promise executive director.
One solution being discussed is public funding, which could replace or augment foundation and corporate contributions with tax dollars.
“It’s worth asking whether the city, the school board or the state legislators would look at the extraordinary success of the Promise and want to give it some public support,” King said.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto sits on the Promise board. PublicSource made multiple requests for an interview with the mayor starting on Feb. 18. According to his staff, the mayor did not have time to comment.
Ghubril and King said a review and sustainability study will be performed to see if and how the Promise may continue into the future.
Absent a firm plan to sustain the Promise for future generations, the city and school district risk losing a program that has made college more accessible and affordable for Pittsburgh students and an anchor designed to keep families with children in the city and provide a future workforce.
“I think you would see a huge impact on low-income and minority students not going to college,” said Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet. “I think [the Promise] is the only way that the majority of our African-American student population gets to college or accesses college courses.”
Dara Ware Allen, CEO and principal of City Charter High School, agreed with Hamlet.
"Having funding to attend school, particularly for first-generation college students is critical in getting certain demographic groups (i.e. African American and low-income) to college and to help them remain enrolled,” she wrote in an email.
Allen said Promise funding allows students to attend the post-secondary school of their choice rather than the least expensive option.
History of the Promise
The Pittsburgh Promise was the brainchild of former Pittsburgh Superintendent Mark Roosevelt and former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. They presented the idea publicly in 2006 but had no funding. The first donation came in the form of a $10,000 check that year from the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.
The Promise became a bankable reality in 2008, a year after UPMC committed to paying $100 million over 10 years, with an agreement that Promise staff would raise another $150 million.
Promise fundraisers fell $56 million short on that goal, but UMPC kept its part of the deal, making a final payment of $41 million to the Promise in July 2017.
“That was incredibly gracious, that $41 million sum they gave us. Frankly, they didn’t owe us that,” Ghubril said of the UPMC contribution.
King said that while the fundraising goal fell short, Ghubril should be commended for raising nearly $100 million. “He has been a fabulous representative of the values of the Promise...of the hopes that the Promise stirs with the students, and he has been hardworking and steady with the fundraising,” King said.
In a prepared statement, UPMC said it was proud to complete its $100 million commitment to the Promise and urged others to step forward to support the fund.
“The Pittsburgh Promise has exceeded our expectations for its impact on the entire school district, on thousands of students and on our whole community. Our regional workforce, including at UPMC, continues to benefit from the outcomes of this effort, and we continue to urge other organizations to join UPMC in supporting the Promise,” the statement said.
The UPMC money was a pleasant surprise for students of the class of 2008 who learned during their senior year they were eligible for up to $5,000 a year toward college tuition.
“We had no idea, so it was a huge blessing,” said Sarah Kyles-Royster, who found out that spring she was eligible for Promise funds.
Promise funds can be used for tuition, room and board and books at any accredited public or private college, university, trade or technical school in Pennsylvania. The Promise is a “last dollar” scholarship, which means other financial aid and scholarships must be used first and the Promise money fills in the gaps.
A graduate of City Charter High School, Kyles-Royster used the funds to help finance her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She later earned a master’s degree at Point Park University. Kyles-Royster, 28, is now a mental health therapist working with adults at the Chartiers Center in Bridgeville and with teens and children at the Community Psychiatric Centers in Monroeville.
From 2008 to 2016, the percentage of students who met the requirements increased from 46 to 62. The largest group to use the funds are black girls, followed by white girls, then white boys and black boys. In total, 74 percent of Promise students are from low-income families who qualified for state or federal financial aid.
The Promise allows for “compassion appeals” on the attendance requirement for students whose family circumstances, such as homelessness, make regular school attendance difficult.
The fund also created the “Promise Extension” program that allows students who wouldn’t have qualified academically to attend Community College of Allegheny County [CCAC] with Promise funds if they had a high school GPA between 2.0 and 2.5. If they maintain at least a 2.0 GPA, they may then transfer to the school of their choice.
Rather than attending CCAC, Richard Cardillo, 25, used the extension program after attending Robert Morris University for his freshman year, paying for it himself. Though he hadn’t earned a 2.5 GPA while a student at Brashear High School, he earned a 4.0 at Robert Morris and was granted Promise funds.
“The biggest impact of the Promise was helping me mitigate excess debt coming out of school,” said Cardillo, now a supervisor of distribution operations at Thermo Fisher Scientific. He holds a bachelor’s degree in manufacturing engineering and industrial engineering.
The first round of Pittsburgh Promise scholarships provided up to $5,000 to each student. In 2012, the total was increased to $10,000 per year.
But in 2015, reality started to sink in after the organization missed fundraising targets. Officials could see more money was going out than coming in.
“We raised every year more than we spent and then invested the difference,” Ghubril said. “But we recognized that somewhere between the eighth and 10th year, we would be spending more than we would be raising.”
In 2015, the organization reduced scholarships to $7,500 and students lost the ability to use funds for room and board and books; it could only be put toward tuition. At the time, the reduction “was a sustainability issue,” Ghubril said. Otherwise, he said the fund would have run out by the class of 2022.
Instead, Promise staff committed to paying scholarships through 2028, which would provide the funding for students who were in kindergarten at the time.
But that wouldn’t be the last change.
In January 2018, Ghubril announced the Promise was reducing its maximum scholarship to $5,000 per year. But it was restoring the ability to use it for room and board and offering the full amount to students who attended Pittsburgh schools for grades 9-12. Previously, students had to attend a Pittsburgh school for grades K-12 to get the full award.
That change angered families with students who had their total scholarship reduced in the year they were set to graduate and collect the funds. But it also cost the fund an additional $1.5 million because it made money accessible to more students.
Ghubril said changes through the years were made to make the fund sustainable and accessible.
“When we launched, the Promise was an ideal. All of the numbers were assumptions. We didn’t have data,” Ghubril said. “When asked in my first tour of promotional duty, ‘How long will this money last?’ It was a clear recognition that it was a finite sum. We couldn’t give very accurate answers because all models were assumptions.”
Though scholarships are promised for the class of 2028, current funding only covers costs through 2025.
If the Promise secured all $250 million upfront — the $100 million from UPMC and the $150 million in matching money— Ghubril said the scholarship fund could have likely existed in perpetuity.
The Promise’s recent 10-year report shows college enrollment for Promise-eligible students has increased from about 63 percent in 2008 to about 68 percent in 2015, according to the Promise report on the past decade. But the increase is not steady, and numbers rise and fall over the period.
Some factors suggest the Promise may have increased student performance, but a deeper review of the program would be needed to show a direct link.
A RAND Education study of the Promise for the years 2008-2010 showed that the program appeared to have a positive impact on stabilizing enrollment and that the number of eligible students enrolling in higher education increased. Students in focus groups said the Promise motivated them to work harder, and the study also said parents of students in grades 6-9 who were new to Pittsburgh schools indicated the Promise was the most important factor in enrolling their children.
The Promise’s 10-year report shows the four-year cohort high school graduation rate at Pittsburgh Public Schools increased from about 68 percent in 2011 to 80 percent in 2016. But again, there are peaks and valleys in the graph.
There is also a large gap in the graduation rates for white and black students. In 2016, 85 percent of white students graduated, compared to 78 percent of black students.
While the percentage of students qualifying for the Promise increased overall, those percentages are significantly higher at high-performing schools such as Pittsburgh CAPA, Pittsburgh Allderdice, Pittsburgh Sci-Tech and City Charter High School. Percentages at those schools ranged from 81 percent to 91 percent of students in 2016.
At lower-performing schools, including Pittsburgh Perry, Pittsburgh Westinghouse, Pittsburgh Milliones and Urban Pathways Charter School, the percentage of Promise-eligible students ranged from 41 percent to 58 percent in 2016.
Ghubril said the sustainability study would consider if it makes sense to continue the Promise solely with foundation and corporate funding.
Could the Promise be sustained with public funding?
Ghubril gives the example of Denver, where voters recently approved a 0.08 percent increase in the city sales tax to raise $14 million annually, some of which would go to the Denver Scholarship Foundation. State money funds the Tennessee Promise, which provides free community college to students across the state.
When he came to Pittsburgh, Hamlet said he was surprised to hear the Promise was privately supported. He was familiar with programs in other states that got public funding. “I was like, ‘Wow, that is amazing. How do you get people to do that?’”
Would local voters support a tax increase?
Ghubril pointed to the success of the 2011 referendum to approve a 0.25-mill increase in city real estate taxes to provide about $3 million in funding to the Carnegie Library system.
But he also mentioned the recent failed voter referendum to raise $18 million via a 0.25-mill tax hike to create the Allegheny County Children’s Fund to support early childhood learning, after-school programs and nutritious meals.
“So we are kind of not sure the appetite (for a tax increase) is strong,” Ghubril said.
Another option is to lobby state legislators to come up with a plan to provide college tuition assistance statewide, Ghubril said. He mentioned state legislation introduced last year to pay for tuition and room and board for students whose families met certain income limits.
Before King retires from the Pittsburgh Foundation in September and leaves the Promise Board, he said he will recommend that the board pursue public funding.
Hamlet said he believes it’s unlikely that the philanthropic community alone can continue to sustain the Promise. He said he will do anything he can to support efforts to seek public funding.
“I think this is a huge game changer for the students in our city,” Hamlet said, “especially the low-income students.”
*The Pittsburgh Foundation provides funding to PublicSource.
Mary Niederberger covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at 412-515-0064 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Oliver Morrison.