The College Promise

The Washington Post has an interesting piece up today about elementary school students and the promise of college. According to an article by Paul Schwartzman:

Back in the spring of 1988, they’d all been friends at Seat Pleasant Elementary, part of a class of fifth-graders from some of Prince George’s County’s poorest neighborhoods.

Then, on a May afternoon, they received an unexpected gift that would alter their lives: the promise of a college education, paid for by two wealthy businessmen. Suddenly, the 11-year-olds were part of an ambitious social experiment being tried across the country, one that brought together rich benefactors and needy kids in a largely untested but intimate style of philanthropy aimed at lifting entire families out of poverty.

One day back in 1988 Abe Pollin, the owner of the Washington Bullets and the Washington Capitals, and Melvin Cohen, owner of the film processing company District Photo, announced that they would pay for the children to go to college.

Inspired by Eugene Lang, a multimillionaire industrialist who promised college tuition to a group of east Harlem students in the early 1980s, Pollin and Cohen promised to pay for college too.

It wasn’t exactly free college. As the article explained, Pollin and Cohen would only cover the equivalent of in-state tuition at the University of Maryland, but it was still fairly generous.

How’s it worked out? Well, not so well.

The promise was impressive but achieving the goal of college completion turned out to be difficult.

What happened is that it turns out the path to college is complicated. While the 60 students, called “The Dreamers,” enjoyed a few other perks beyond the promise of college, without serious institutional reform of the education (and perhaps economic and social) system in Prince George’s County, The Dreamers turned out a lot like other elementary school students. As Schwartzman writes:

When they left school at 3:15 p.m. every day, when they weren’t lunching with Pollin and Cohen, when they weren’t traveling on their exclusive school bus, the Dreamers returned to communities rife with drugs and gang-related carnage.

Of the 60 fifth-grade students at Seat Pleasant Elementary at least three of them became pregnant, a little more than half of them attended college. Only 18 percent of the students, 11 of them, graduated from college.

One of the eventual graduates, Wendy Fulgueras, apparently wrote in her application to college that she hoped “that someday I will gain acceptance to a fine university and show Abe Pollin and Melvin Cohen that I have not squandered the opportunity they gave me.”

Fulgueras is in many ways the star of the program. But then, as Wendy, now a doctor, points out, she probably would have gone to college anyway.

Ultimately, it appears that the promise of college tuition had some impact. The high school graduation rate of the group, 83 percent, is dramatically better than average for children with their background.

The program produced a doctor, and a lawyer, and pharmacy technician. It also produced electricians, UPS drivers, an elevator repairman, and a number of people who are currently unemployed. That’s not failure, but it’s certainly not an example of incredible success.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer