During his junior year of high school, Wade Lipscomb enlisted in the military because he didn’t know how he would pay for college. That would soon change.

He learned of a new program called The Pittsburgh Promise, which would provide $5,000 a year, over four years, to him and other eligible students in Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] to attend college in Pennsylvania. Lipscomb applied to colleges with the encouragement of a school counselor, got out of his military contract and enrolled in Pennsylvania State University’s petroleum and natural gas engineering program in 2010.

“It was a big part in really getting me to think about college being an option, and then also helping me pay for it,” Lipscomb said of the Promise. He took out an estimated $15,000 in loans, which he paid off two years after graduating in 2014, and started his own construction company in 2021. 

The Promise, which launched in 2008, made college more accessible for Lipscomb, but future PPS graduates are losing one extra way to pay for their education as costs rise nationally. 

The Promise’s executive director, Saleem Ghubril, told district parents in a mid-September letter that the class of 2028 – eighth graders today – would be the last to receive the privately funded scholarship, WESA reported. The organization had said for years that it could not make commitments to future graduates as the uncertainty of available funding grew. 

The Promise has provided $171.5 million in scholarships to nearly 11,600 students. The scholarship has made a tangible difference in the lives of students who spoke with PublicSource, and PPS considers it to be one factor behind its improving graduation rates and one strategy for keeping students in the district as enrollment drops.

But the value of the scholarship has fallen over time, with the maximum annual award increasing to $10,000 in 2012 but dropping back to $5,000 in 2018. And while more students have become eligible for the scholarship, as of 2019, 40% of students in PPS still didn’t meet its GPA and attendance requirements. Students must maintain at least a 2.5 GPA to qualify.

Saleem Ghubril, executive director of The Pittsburgh Promise. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

In an interview, Ghubril said that a high school diploma is no longer enough for many residents to compete for jobs and noted that the state is home to some of the most expensive public universities in the nation for local families. 

“There’s a lot at stake, and answering it through a privately funded Promise initiative in one city, in one public school system in the commonwealth of 500, is short-sighted,” Ghubril said.

Without the scholarship, the Promise wants to advocate for a public policy solution to funding post-secondary education in Pennsylvania. College affordability has been a long-standing issue in the state, though, with no clear resolution in sight. 

What was the impact of the scholarship – and who got it?

Promise programs provide college scholarships to local students but vary in their awards, funding models and eligibility criteria. There were more than 200 promise programs in the country as of September, according to a database from the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. About 31% exclusively rely on private funding, as The Pittsburgh Promise has.

The Pittsburgh Promise is a last-dollar scholarship, meaning it covers students’ eligible expenses after they receive all other scholarships and grants. The scholarship has been one of the more financially generous offerings in the country, said Michelle Miller-Adams, a senior researcher at the institute. 

Promise programs have been shown to boost college enrollment, but there have been few rigorous studies analyzing whether they improve college completion, Miller-Adams said. A 2017 study from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that PPS graduates were more likely to enroll in college, select an in-state institution and persist for a second year because of their Promise eligibility. 

Samantha Soto, a Pittsburgh Promise alumna, sits for a portrait in her backyard on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2023, in the South Side. The Promise allowed her to enroll in Indiana University of Pennsylvania after high school, a route she said she likely couldn’t have continued if it weren’t for the Promise softening tuition hikes. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

In all, more than 60% of Pittsburgh Promise recipients have graduated from college or are currently enrolled, Ghubril told PublicSource in a mid-October interview. While Ghubril “will never be satisfied” with that statistic, he said it aligns with national norms for educational attainment. The Promise measures its results against data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, analyzed by Pitt researchers.

“I think it’s noteworthy that this one urban demographic is holding its own when compared to every demographic,” Ghubril said.

About 49% of all Promise awardees are white, and 46% are Black or multiracial, according to data from the organization reflecting the scholarship’s launch through Oct. 10. During the 2022-23 academic year, about 31% of PPS students were white, while 51% were Black. That excludes the charter schools that are eligible for the Promise, the majority of which are predominantly Black.

Black women make up the largest share of Promise awardees, at nearly 30%, though they’re underrepresented in proportion to their presence in the district. White women and men follow, then Black men, at 17%. That percentage grew from about 7% in the Promise’s early years, when the organization ran a mentoring initiative, but then stagnated, Ghubril said. 

“The tragic reality is that low-income students, and Black males in particular, face challenges that the rest of Pittsburgh’s demographics don’t,” Ghubril said.  

Promise eligibility has also varied by high school, according to data from 2019, the most recent year available. Only 22% of students at Perry High School qualified for the scholarship that year, compared to 89% at CAPA 6-12. The vast majority of students at Perry are economically disadvantaged, while about 29% are at CAPA.

The Promise offers post-secondary coaching to students at Carrick High School, Milliones 6-12 and Perry, which it plans to continue without the scholarship and to launch next year at Westinghouse Academy 6-12, Ghubril said. 

How has the Promise impacted Pittsburghers?

Though there is limited research to show whether promise programs improve college graduation rates, Miller-Adams said the scholarships are often successful at creating “college-going cultures” within high schools, allowing students to think more deeply about life after graduation without feeling limited in their options.

And because the programs expand opportunities for low-income and marginalized students to access college, they provide insight into the types of support these students need to be successful, she said.

“There was a lot of learning that came out of The Pittsburgh Promise that is going to be of value to the community even after the program ends,” she said. 

Wade Lipscomb, a Promise recipient and owner of Triple 3 Construction, walks by the FNB Tower, on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023. Lipscomb is providing project management services for interior work as a subcontractor on FNB Tower’s construction in the Lower Hill District. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

James Scheidter, 29, used his Promise funds to enroll at the Community College of Allegheny County instead of entering the trades directly out of high school. He earned an associates degree related to heating and air conditioning [HVAC], which he says allowed him to more quickly acquire the skills he needed to move up in the profession. 

He started an HVAC business five years ago with a friend from college and struck out on his own last year. His wife received the Promise, too, which she used for her bachelor’s degree at Slippery Rock University. Scheidter estimated that the family has about $30,000 in student loan debt, and without the Promise, their debt would have at least doubled. 

“I felt like I made the right move,” Scheidter said. The couple purchased a home in Butler County five years ago, and his wife is able to be a stay-at-home mother to their two children.

Samantha Soto, 27, received $40,000 in Promise dollars after graduating from City Charter High School in 2014. She enrolled in Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where the scholarship covered a sizable portion of her tuition and fees. Without the Promise, she said that tuition increases at the university would have likely caused her to drop out halfway through. 

“With the amount of money that the Promise gave me, even after tuition went up, I’m like, ‘OK, I only have two years left. I know I can take out this debt and graduate, and I at least have a college degree,’” said Soto, who estimates that she accumulated at most $20,000 in debt for her bachelor’s degree. 

Soto later received a dual master’s degree in business administration and sustainability from Chatham University. She now works at UPMC and, on the side, sells homemade body care products in compostable containers. She’s grateful that the Promise helped her, but she doesn’t believe it’s an effective solution to the rising cost of college. 

“When I went to college, it covered tuition, and then it covered a little bit of my books, a little bit of my meal plan, a little bit of my on-campus housing. And I know that if I go and I look at tuition rates today, it might not do all of that for someone, which would put them in the same situation that I would have been in without the Promise.”

What could the loss of the scholarship mean for PPS?

The Promise cites increasing graduation rates at PPS as an example of the scholarship’s impact. The district’s four-year graduation rate increased by about 12 percentage points among Black students and 10 percentage points among white students between the 2011-2012 and 2021-2022 academic year, according to data from the state Department of Education.

PPS spokesperson Ebony Pugh said in an email that the Promise has “certainly” helped to improve the district’s graduation rates, but she added that student support services and the work of school staff have been other factors. She said the district will try to further improve graduation rates by working with its equity advocates, who offer support to marginalized students.

Samantha Soto, a Pittsburgh Promise alumna, stands for a portrait in her backyard on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2023, in the South Side. The full Pittsburgh Promise funds ($40,000) Soto received allowed her to enroll in Indiana University of Pennsylvania after high school, a route she said she likely couldn’t have continued if it weren’t for the Promise. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

The Promise, however, has not been able to offset enrollment declines in PPS since launching in 2008. Between the 2008-09 and 2022-23 academic years, enrollment fell by about 30% across the district, to 18,652 students. The district is projected to lose nearly 6,000 students by 2031.

Pugh said that it’s difficult to determine whether the loss of the Promise will impact enrollment. She noted, however, that the Promise “continues to be an attract and hold strategy” for the district and was likely a deciding factor for some families to enroll. 

What comes next?

“Last-dollar” scholarships such as the Promise make a big difference for students who are ineligible for federal Pell Grants but may not have enough money for college. Creating statewide tuition-free college programs, as other states have done, could be a solution for universities to enroll public school students, Miller-Adams said. 

Though the Promise plans to advocate for policy changes in the state, Ghubril said it was too early to meaningfully elaborate on what that work might entail. 

In the absence of the scholarship, Pugh said the district will need to help students and families be aware of other forms of financial assistance they might not have considered because the Promise was in place. 

PPS Board of Directors member Gene Walker said the district should focus on providing an equitable education to all students, closing the gap between charter and private schools and making tough decisions about its spending to be affordable and attractive. 

The end of the Promise spurred “a little bit of disappointment,” he said, “not in the fact that they’re not able to continue, but that we haven’t been able to make the systemic changes that make organizations like The Pittsburgh Promise not necessary.” 

Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at lajja@publicsource.org.

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org

This story was fact-checked by Rich Lord.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.