On March 5, Mayor Jim Kenney unveiled his proposal to create the Octavio Catto Scholarship -- a citywide College Promise program. In partnership with Community College of Philadelphia, the initiative would cover tuition, other expenses, and provide academic supports. This is exciting news for Philadelphia. As the poorest large city in America, with college-going rates that trail many, we need a pathway toward prosperity for our residents and our city.
Our organization, Research for Action, has studied Promise programs across the country over the last several years. There are hundreds of Promise programs, and they vary enormously. But our research suggests that those most likely to increase both college-going and college completion for traditionally disadvantaged students contain many elements of Kenney’s model. Specifically:
Full tuition coverage. Kenney’s plan will ensure that no full-time student will pay tuition to attend CCP. If costs are not covered by state and federal grants, the city will pick up the tab. We have seen that a simple but powerful “no tuition” message can increase college enrollment and create a citywide college-going culture that can dramatically change how families and students approach their futures.
Additional resources for related expenses. To attend, college students must buy books, eat, and pay for transportation. Research shows that if these costs are not covered, many people will not attend college or will drop out. Kenney’s plan reduces this barrier by providing all students with $1,500 per semester for these expenses.
Support services. College Promise scholarships can increase enrollment without necessarily increasing graduation. This is because students need support to persist in college. With additional resources from the city, CCP will provide counseling to help students get across the finish line.
An emphasis on closing racial attainment gaps. Rates of college enrollment, persistence, and graduation lag for African American, Latinx, and other traditionally underserved students. CCP plans to directly address these gaps through this initiative.
Eligibility for both recent high school graduates and returning adult students. Most Promise programs serve only recent high school graduates. But some of the most innovative and impactful models include adults — as does Kenney’s program. This will make college accessible to an often-ignored population, and in doing so increase the capacity of these students to support their families.
Inclusion of undocumented students. Undocumented students and their families pay taxes but are frequently excluded from financial aid programs. Philadelphia is increasingly becoming a city of immigrants. Research shows that including these students in Promise programs will strengthen our city’s talent pool significantly.
Some details about the program remain unclear. Can students eligible for state and federal aid who don’t receive the scholarship still receive supports? Research suggests this will increase college completion across the board. Will students who cannot attend full time due to family and work obligations be allowed to participate? Data show that with support, these students can persist to a credential. Will the city invest in an evaluation of the initiative? Research can help strengthen the program, increase its impact, and show Philadelphians what their tax dollars are paying for.
Details about funding and logistics remain unclear as well. If the program grows in popularity, will funds be adequate and stable? Will the state contribute any resources?
While we need more details, what we do know suggests that Kenney’s proposed Promise program would be a rare win-win for Philadelphia. First, individuals will benefit from obtaining the skills and credentials needed to get a living-wage job. And the city as a whole will benefit as well, since increased college attainment will attract more high-wage employers seeking a well-educated workforce.