In a major change beginning next school year, the Pittsburgh Promise will allow students to use its college scholarships not only for tuition and fees but for books, meal plans and room costs.
Saleem Ghubril, the Promise's executive director, made the announcement last night at the city school board's Education Committee meeting. He said the Promise's board of directors unanimously approved the change.
"I am proud of our board for making a daring move like that," he said.
The decision doesn't change the maximum amount available to recipients, who must be graduates of the Pittsburgh Public Schools or charter schools.
But in an interview after his presentation, Mr. Ghubril said the change means a much larger percentage of recipients will receive the maximum -- $20,000 for students graduating high school through 2011 and $40,000 for those graduating high school after that.
He said the change is needed so that poorer students have improved access to financial aid from the Pittsburgh Promise.
Developed by school Superintendent Mark Roosevelt and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, the Promise now is structured to help students pay tuition and fees at about 100 post-secondary institutions. It's a "last-dollar" program that kicks in money after students exhaust other sources of college aid.
Poorer students get more government grants than wealthier students, and that has translated into a lower share of Promise dollars for the neediest recipients. For example, if a government grant completely covers tuition and fees, a student receives only the Promise minimum of $1,000, no matter how much he or she has to spend on other college costs.
"That's just not right," Mr. Ghubril said. He hopes that allowing students to use the scholarships for "total cost of attendance" -- tuition, fees, books, room and board -- will make for a more equitable distribution of aid.
Asked how large an impact the change will have on total Promise payouts, Mr. Ghubril said only that the program must plan to award the maximum scholarship to each eligible graduate each year.
The Promise made its inaugural round of scholarships to about 750 members of the class of 2008. Mr. Ghubril estimated that payouts for that group's first year of college would total as much as $3.5 million.
The program has been funded primarily by a $10 million grant from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. UPMC also offered a challenge grant of $90 million, and Mr. Ghubril is working to raise the $135 million match.
It wasn't immediately clear whether the new scholarships will make the Pittsburgh Promise more generous than similar programs in other cities. On their Web sites, the Kalamazoo Promise in Michigan and El Dorado Promise in Arkansas only mention aid for tuition and fees.
Mr. Ghubril said the 750 students already receiving scholarships will be able to use the aid for books, room and board next school year. The change will be included in marketing materials for future recipients.
The city's 2009 high school graduates must have an 85 percent attendance rate and a 2.25 cumulative grade-point average to qualify for aid. They must have been enrolled in a city public school since at least ninth grade.
Joe Smydo can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1548.