What will come after Pittsburgh Promise ends?

Isaac Crawford says his first attempt at college was a disaster: he started at the Community College of Allegheny County, and in his first year “flunked out miserably.” But today, he’s grateful.

“It was a beautiful experience because I had a chance to get a lot of my things in order,” he said.

The second chance at college came because of the Pittsburgh Promise. Upon graduating from Carrick High School in 2017, the organization granted Crawford a $20,000 scholarship to pursue a post-secondary degree. When he failed out of CCAC, Crawford went to the program’s offices to meet with his Promise coach, Miles Hines, still one of his mentors today.

“I sat down in front of him and he looked me in the eye and said, ‘Listen, I’ll give you this money, you’ve earned this money. But you’ve got to make the work for yourself. You’ve got to do this for yourself,’” Crawford recalled. “He’s like, ‘All I do is check a box and you’re good to go. But if you fail out like you did last time, then there’s nothing else for you on the way back up.’”

Crawford said that second chance lit a fire under him: He kept his grades up and even made the dean’s list before transferring to Chatham University to study sustainability.

He graduated from there in May 2023, making him the first in his family to earn a four-year degree, and was hired as a surveyor at a regional mapping company.

Crawford is one of the more than 4,000 Promise recipients to attain a degree so far, as well as among the nearly 12,000 students who have received money through the Promise since the organization’s inception.

The Promise provides graduating seniors at Pittsburgh public and charter schools up to $20,000 to further their education at either a university or trade school. It’s nearly guaranteed for all students with a GPA of 2.5 or higher and an attendance record of at least 90%.

But that guarantee ends with the Class of 2028.

“The bottom line is all of us would love for this to be perpetual and run forever,” said executive director Saleem Ghubril. “But then there’s the reality, and the reality is that the private sector — which has sustained this remarkably generously over the last 15 years — can’t sustain it for too much longer.”

“Not enough fuel available”

UPMC kickstarted the Promise with a $100 million donation in 2007, and last year committed an additional $10 million. The Promise, however, has had to fundraise the remaining $155 million needed to keep the program going through 2028.

The organization is competing with hundreds of other local nonprofits vying for a share of Pittsburgh’s private-sector dollars, a limited pool. As of December, $10.6 million remains to be raised.

“It’s not that we don’t want to,” Ghubril said. “There’s just not enough fuel available.”

While the Promise’s signature scholarship program will end, the organization as a whole will continue to operate. Exactly what its function will be is unclear, but Ghubril said its outreach and coaching programs at Pittsburgh high schools will continue.

He added that the organization is focusing its efforts on systemic solutions to the Commonwealth’s college affordability crisis. Pitt and Penn State consistently rank among the country’s most expensive public schools for in-state students.

Pennsylvania ranks 49th among state appropriations for higher education per full-time student, according to a 2022 report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Spotlight PA recently found that public funding for Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities has not kept pace with inflation.

“So it almost feels like there’s been an attempt to privatize our public university systems and force college presidents to come up with competitive ways to survive,” Ghubril said. “So there has to be a systemic solution.”

To that end, state lawmakers have introduced bills to create a Pennsylvania Promise Pilot Program, which would allocate $220 million toward “last dollar” scholarships to the Commonwealth’s public colleges.

Any student with a household income of $200,000 or less would be eligible for grants to cover the remaining costs after federal, state and other awards have already been applied.

The legislation sets aside just over half of the money for students attending state-owned institutions, like Slippery Rock and Pennsylvania Western.

“It is in an individual’s personal benefit economically, it is in the benefit of the community and there’s also the benefit of the entire Commonwealth,” Philadelphia-area state Sen. Vincent Hughes said.

The Democrat, alongside state Rep. Jordan Harris, has advocated for the program, which he said aims to cut down on student debt.

“Unfortunately, over time it’s been a move towards borrowing as opposed to doing the greater good and providing scholarships and grants,” Hughes said, “especially to low-income individuals who find it increasingly hard to pull together the resources to go to college.”

House lawmakers say they will consider the program for a vote, although not until the session reconvenes in mid-March.

More flexibility, and less student debt

In the meantime, Pittsburgh families have begun to examine their options once the Promise expires. The youngest of Shakieria Carter’s siblings is expected to graduate from high school in 2029 — one year too late to receive the Promise.

“But other than that, everybody else is going to be a Pittsburgh Promise alum,” Carter said.

Carter, a Promise recipient herself, having received the scholarship upon graduating from Pittsburgh Public Schools in 2014, has helped her siblings navigate the Promise, along with other scholarships and financial aid.

Outside of her home, Carter helps students pursue higher education as an academic counselor at Penn State Greater Allegheny for students in federal TRIO programs, designed to assist low-income individuals, students with disabilities and first-generation college students.

“I’m seeing them stress about their financial stability, how they’re going to make their ends meet, how they can pay off their tuition and how much student debt they’re accruing,” Carter said.

The students she serves who received the Pittsburgh Promise, on the other hand, are often thriving. Penn State Greater Allegheny is among the Promise’s “preferred college partners,” meaning students are eligible for room and board subsidies as well.

“The students who do receive the Pittsburgh Promise have a little more flexibility in their lives and how they can function on a day-to-day basis, without having to worry about, ‘I have to get a job on campus because I have to be able to afford my tuition, and I have to be able to make my ends meet.’”

As a student receiving the Promise, Carter was able to study abroad, and cut down on her student loans. She now has a master’s degree, and owns a home.

Combined with other scholarships, low-interest loans and Pell grants, some Promise graduates saw their total student debt cut in half.

Morgan Avrigean, who enrolled at Point Park University in 2015 after receiving the Promise, said that afforded her a level of financial freedom.

“My mom didn’t even own a house until she was 40,” Avrigean said. “My husband and I just closed on our second house and are selling our first for equity.”

In its annual reports, the Promise touts measures of the program’s districtwide success: PPS’ overall graduation rate increased from 68% in 2011 to 82% in 2021, and the percentage of high school seniors who met the combined GPA and attendance requirements increased by 13 percentage points — 47% to 60% — from 2008 to 2019.

To Avrigean, Promise’s success could be measured by how many alumni feel as though they will be able to put their kids in a better position than they were given.

“I hope other people feel it, and that it’s kind of a proven and visible thing that, of the 20 years, that is going to create a whole ‘nother generation of students who might not even meet the Promise,” Avrigean said.

“But again, there’s people that’s definitely going to leave behind and not be true for.”

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