Merit-Based Scholarship Program Shows No Direct Effect on Overall College Enrollment

By Charlotte Etier, Policy and Federal Relations Staff

An article released in last week’s Journal of Student Financial Aid volume 45, issue 2, explored whether the introduction of a merit-based scholarship program changed the rates of college enrollment among Pittsburgh public high school students in the years immediately following its launch. Comparing data on two graduating classes prior to the program's launch with the graduating classes three years following this analysis yielded mixed results and found no direct effect on the overall rate of college enrollment.

As detailed in the introduction and review of literature, “promise programs” are a growing type of community-based financial support program, which typically cover all or part of local high school graduates’ college tuition expenses. Since these programs are often created and funded by community-based institutions and/or philanthropists, they are typically part of larger strategies for local economic growth. Eligibility for promise programs varies and can be universal for all students, regardless of income or academic performance, or be based on some combination of these two measures. They may also cover partial or full tuition and/or fees for a set number of years, or cumulative credit hours, and only be used at public institutions or public and private institutions in a specific geographic area. The Kalamazoo Promise was the first of its kind when it launched in 2005, and now there are approximately 30 others across the country and 10 more in the works. Since promise programs are typically introduced to students well in advance, they should theoretically offer some evidence on the effectiveness of early-awareness efforts on college enrollment and completion rates among their recipients.

Analyzed in this study was the Pittsburgh Promise. Introduced in fall 2007, it provided $5,000 per year for up to four years – a promise of $20,000 total – at postsecondary schooling to public school students in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A distinct eligibility criteria for this promise program was the inclusion of eligibility criteria for both academic benchmarks as a prerequisite – including a minimum grade point average – and attendance thresholds. As outlined in the study, other initial research on the Pittsburgh Promise indicated high school enrollments rates in the district stabilized, rather than continuing to decline. Parents who transferred into the district indicated the Promise was an important factor in their decision to move to the city, and slightly more students in the district enrolled in college after the inception of the program.

In this study, the researchers began by attempting to illustrate the extent to which the Promise altered the short-term costs for average eligible students in Pittsburgh. This examination revealed two shifts:

  • Tuition and fees from 2006-07 (the year before the promise) and 2007-08 (the first year of the program) showed a sharp decline in total cost of attendance.
  • The cost for eligible students to attend postsecondary schools in Ohio was substantially higher, since students cannot use the scholarship outside of Pennsylvania. (Ohio was identified as the nearest out-of-state alternative).

As such, it was anticipated that the Promise program would result in an increased share of in-state enrollment.

The researchers then used a differences-in-differences design to determine if the Promise program directly influenced the change rates of college enrollment among public high school students in the years immediately following the launch. This model combined two data sources: secondary enrollment data from the Pittsburgh Public School District, and postsecondary enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse. The findings indicated that Promise-eligible students enrolled in college at substantially higher rates than their peers who met eligibility requirements, but were not in the district: 80 percent in 2007-08 versus only 30 percent of their non-eligible peers. However, when comparing enrollment rates across the multiple years of this study, the differences remained constant, suggesting the availability of the Promise scholarship did not distinctly induce a change in behavior among eligible graduates.

While there were no changes in overall enrollment rates, the study does point out differences in the types of schools graduates choose to attend. Promise-eligible students were more likely to attend four-year schools than non-eligible students, and their probability of enrolling in four-year schools increased from 0.42 to 0.49 percent across the years examined. The study concludes by reminding readers that they should be mindful of many factors related to the success (or failures) of promise programs, including: changes in school superintendents, implementation of new curriculum in a given district, and other factors. The researchers also point out that changes as a result of introducing a new promise program would be gradual, and often have later classes more affected than earlier ones.


Publication Date: 8/14/2015

You must be logged in to comment on this page.

Comments Disclaimer: NASFAA welcomes and encourages readers to comment and engage in respectful conversation about the content posted here. We value thoughtful, polite, and concise comments that reflect a variety of views. Comments are not moderated by NASFAA but are reviewed periodically by staff. Users should not expect real-time responses from NASFAA. To learn more, please view NASFAA’s complete Comments Policy.

Related Content

NASFAA Policy Update


NASFAA Policy Update


View Desktop Version