Education Funding

Broken College-Scholarship Promise Strands D.C. Students

By Catherine Gewertz — January 17, 2001 4 min read
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For 63 teenagers in a hardscrabble stretch of Washington, Christmas was a time to lose a bit of their faith in humanity. A local businessman had inspired them since kindergarten, promising to pay for college. Six months shy of graduation, they learned his words were hollow: There was no money.

But within two weeks, the heart-rending story turned heartwarming. As headlines bearing the tale reached across the country, hundreds of people stepped forward with cash, scholarship offers, and strategies to help the seniors fulfill their dream.

“I feel really good,” said Kenneth Webb, 18, a senior at Cardozo Senior High School, located in a blue-collar, predominantly black neighborhood of the nation’s capital. “I found out that a lot of people care about us and our education.”

National experts on such college-aid guarantees called the broken promise highly unusual. But they said it provides a cautionary lesson— both for schools and for potential donors—about how even the best of intentions can quickly unravel without the proper safeguards.

It was with a caring spirit that George Abel promised in the late 1980s that his Phoenix Foundation would cover the college tuition of the kindergartners at Washington’s Bruce- Monroe Elementary School.

He repeated the promise in 1995 at their 6th grade graduation, but the families learned only recently that his foundation had closed years ago.

Mr. Abel, who lives in Bethesda, Md., a Washington suburb, and serves as a spiritual leader in a Missouri-based nondenominational Christian movement, acknowledged in a telephone interview last week that he had not kept his promise, but said he had no further comment and abruptly hung up.

Last month, he told The Washington Post that he had offered the scholarships in the hope he could raise the money, and felt bad that he had failed.

Layla Wynn, 17, another of the Cardozo High students, said she would like to hear Mr. Abel explain to them what happened.

“‘What were you thinking?’ That’s my question,” she said. “Did he think we were all just going to go away? We’re humans. Doesn’t he realize that? Anybody with a heart would have at least mailed us a letter.”

Cautionary Tale

The prototype for such guarantees of college aid is the celebrated commitment made in 1981 by businessman Eugene M. Lang, who returned to the New York City school he had attended and promised its 6th graders partial scholarships. In fact, Mr. Abel has said that his offer was at least partially inspired by that story.

Today, the New York-based “I Have A Dream” Foundation established by Mr. Lang helps 168 projects in 63 cities in which individual philanthropists offer tuition assistance, counseling, and enrichment programs to guide low-income students into college or vocational school.

Llew P. Haden, the organization’s chairman of the board, said it is rare for a promise of such help to be broken. Usually, those who make such a substantial offer are serious enough about it to ensure the assets are there to back up the gesture, he said.

But Mr. Haden urged potential recipients of such generosity to check into the donor’s assets and plans, inquire about what types of assets will be used, and how the funds will be protected. To avoid a disappointing outcome, he recommended that both donor and recipient rely only upon relatively stable assets, such as cash, annuities, or certificates of deposit.

Mr. Haden also suggested that the potential donor set up a nonprofit to house those funds, and that the organization adopt bylaws that specify the money cannot be withdrawn for any purpose other than the scholarships.

“It can be awkward to challenge the validity and character of an individual, but you’ve got to get through that,” he said. “If the intentions of that individual are genuine, it shouldn’t be a big deal.”

Happy Endings

At the D.C. College Access Program, a nonprofit that provides mentoring, advice, and scholarships to help students enter and complete college, more than $70,000 in checks has rolled in from the United States and Canada to help the former Bruce-Monroe Elementary students, Executive Director Argeliah Rodriguez said.

“It’s so heartwarming that people have responded like this,” Ms. Rodriguez said. Most of the donations have come from individuals who saw or heard about news reports of the students’ dashed college dreams, she said.

Administrators from half a dozen colleges from Pennsylvania to Washington state also have called to offer scholarships and other assistance, she said. The group enlisted the aid of a Virginia real estate investor who pledged the resources of his foundation, Fight for Children, to raise even more money to help the students. Another Virginia businessman pledged $20,000 to the effort.

Still more checks and scholarship offers have flooded Cardozo High, which 14 of the original 63 Bruce-Monroe Elementary School students now attend. After hearing of the teenagers’ plight, Jane Margaret O’Brien, the president of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a state-run honors college, offered full rides to any of the students who could meet its admissions criteria. She rallied other colleges, which made similar offers.

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening pledged “the full resources” of the state’s college and university system to ensure that the students had the advice and financial backing they need.

The outpouring was greeted with sighs of relief because the students come from families with limited incomes. Mr. Webb, whose father died when he was in elementary school, said his working mother supports him and two younger siblings and had been unable to save for college.

Tori Hill, 17, an aspiring teacher with a 3.5 grade point average, said she felt abandoned when she learned the scholarship promise would not be kept. That has made her wary of rejoicing too much about a recent scholarship offer from Morgan State University in Baltimore.

“I’m just hoping they won’t back out,” Ms. Hill said, “like the man who promised us the scholarships.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2001 edition of Education Week as Broken College-Scholarship Promise Strands D.C. Students

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