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New Haven's Promise Of Free College Just A Start

Getting some students there part of the challenge

Rick Green

November 12, 2010

After the euphoric announcement that there's a free college education waiting for any kid from New Haven, then what?

You realize how complicated it is to make good on an offer like this.

George Weiss a Wall Street investor who is the granddaddy of free college promises has learned that urban students need far more than a feel-good promise. For two decades, his Say Yes to Education program has been dangling the high education carrot in front of inner-city children.

"Their expectation is of not going to college,'' said Weiss, who has poured millions of dollars into his initiative, with chapters in Hartford, Philadelphia, Boston, New York and Syracuse. "You have to change that expectation."

I remember wandering around West Philadelphia in 1992 as Weiss tried to explain to me, a visiting reporter, just how hard it was to guarantee a college education for kids whose families have never known higher education before.

It wasn't so much the free ride to college, Weiss told me back then. It's getting them there. Later, he would realize it's also pretty hard to keep a kid in college once he gets to college.

Long before high school graduation, teenagers from the city can get pregnant, shot, evicted or arrested. Families fall apart and mothers and fathers lose their jobs. They need tutors and summer jobs and counseling. They need somebody to call in the middle of the night. They drop out.

"The mistake we learned from is we never taught our kids how to handle divorce or how to handle a mortgage payment. You assume those things. But most of them had no fathers. When they have a divorce when they are older, they fall apart," said Weiss, whose money management firm has offices in Hartford and New York.

Yale University announced this week that it will donate $4 million annually to fund the New Haven Promise, which, after a phasing-in period, pledges to pay full college tuition at a public school for students who maintain a B average, attend school and demonstrate good citizenship.

"I think what Yale has done is tremendous,'' Weiss said. "But how much programmatic support are they giving? What happens when you put a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is that you reach the kid who is going to be reached anyway.''

"Then what happens to the rest of the population? You have to increase the probabilities of these kids making it. You've got to have social workers. You don't just have to prepare them academically. You need the after-school programs. You need need summer school. You need to level the playing field."

Say Yes has learned that the earlier they can get to students even fifth grade, when one Hartford group started, is late the more likely that they will make it to graduation and college.

Weiss told me he also has learned that a promise to pay for college must address entire communities. Parents, children and even teachers are all asked to do more. The latest Say Yes program is a citywide initiative in Syracuse, not unlike the just-announced New Haven Promise.

"You have to intervene in the families,'' Weiss said. ''You have to help them with their social ills."

Mayor John DeStefano told me that the city will provide that ongoing help for an initiative that he and Yale President Richard Levin envision as an economic engine for the New Haven region.

"If Connecticut is going to succeed, then the workforce in our cities has to be prepared for that growth,'' DeStefano said. "I want people to become homeowners, to become taxpayers."

Say Yes has shown there is great potential with programs like this, albeit with a lot of work and a lot of extra money. Among recent classes of Say Yes students, the high school graduation rate is close to 80 percent, about double what we've seen in a city such as Hartford.

The thing I always liked about Say Yes was a wealthy businessman who believed that poor kids in Philadelphia or Hartford deserved to make it in college. New Haven, with Yale's example, might provide more evidence that this model can work and attract others.

When children feel optimistic about the future, good things happen, Weiss reminded me this week. "That's how you turn a city around."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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