G.A.O. Finds Benefits in Private Tuition-Guarantee Programs

By Mark Pitsch — August 01, 1990 3 min read

Washington--Low-income students enrolled in privately funded programs that guarantee their college tuition appear to be motivated to stay in school, according to a federal study.

The report, released by the General Accounting Office, says preliminary evidence indicates that scholarship programs such as those sponsored by the “I Have a Dream” Foundation “seem to have the potential to markedly increase motivation and achievement” among secondary- and elementary-school students.

In 1988-89, it says, at least 42,496 students participated in such tuition-guarantee programs and at least 2,884 students now in postsecondary education received a total of $1.6 million in tuition aid from those sources. The most successful programs, it concludes, are those that provide such support services as tutoring and adult advising.

Commissioned by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, the report cautions that it is too early to tell whether the programs have succeeded in making postsecondary education more accessible to low-income and disadvantaged students. Most of the participants in the programs, which became popular in the mid-1980’s, have not yet completed high school.

But the gao says its study can still help lawmakers decide whether such programs “can be adopted widely and thus influence future federal programs.”

Terry W. Hartle, education staff director for Mr. Kennedy’s committee, said federal legislators may draw on the thinking behind private tuition-guarantee efforts when they review aid programs for higher education in the next Congress.

“What is happening with these private programs,” he said, “is what was initially intended with the federal student-aid programs, and what we’ll have to do is remember the principles and ideas behind them.”

Questions From Lang

But the New York City businessman Eugene M. Lang, who created a model for such efforts in 1981 when he promised to pay the college tuition of a class of inner-city 6th graders, questioned whether the approach could work under government sponsorship. He said a government program would be unable to provide individual sponsors and mentors to monitor students’ progress and act as guides--support services that are integral to his own effort.

“Children cannot be ‘institutionalized,”’ he said in a recent interview. “Maybe when a child can learn to kiss an institution, you’ve got a good start.”

Mr. Lang, whose “I Have A Dream” Foundation has helped set up tuition-guarantee programs financed by private donors in 32 cities, also took issue with attempts to judge the effects of such programs quantitatively.

“They’re all looking for statistical conclusions, and if you’re looking for statistical conclusions, you’re looking for something that’s inconsistent with the program,” he said. “We need new ways of measuring success and a different level of tolerance for results.”

The gao report, which obtained responses from 69 of 111 such programs surveyed for the 1988-89 school year, identified four different kinds of tuition guarantees--sponsorships, such as Mr. Lang’s approach; “pay-for-grades,” whereby students accumulate a certain amount of tuition money for each good grade earned; “last-dollar” programs, which encourage college-bound students to apply for financial aid and make up the difference between the amounts sought and received; and a variety of university-based efforts.

The agency sent questionnaires to program officials asking about rates of participation, program costs and characteristics, and any possible results. Researchers then made on-site visits to observe six programs.

The study did not actually compare the academic and social achievement of those involved in the programs with those not participating.

While most of the findings appear promising, if inconclusive, the report says some programs studied had difficulty in maintaining contact with enrolled students throughout their stay in the program.

Up to five copies of the report may be ordered at no charge from the gao, P.O. Box 6015, Gaithersburg, Md. 20877. Additional copies are available for $2 each.

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1990 edition of Education Week as G.A.O. Finds Benefits in Private Tuition-Guarantee Programs