Great Promise

Great Promise

Just over a decade ago, key New Haven players made a promise to the city’s students: We will make it possible for you to go to college. It was no small commitment. According to an August 2020 article in Forbes, the average cost of attending a four-year college or university rose at twice the rate of inflation between 1985 and 2018, a whopping 497% increase.

Even so, New Haven Promise has delivered. Since its inception in 2010, it has paid tuition for more than 700 New Haven Public School graduates who have gone on to finish college and launch careers—many of them here at home. “We’re a treasure for the entire city,” says Patricia Melton, executive director, pointing to the long game of creating a stronger workforce of well-educated young people who, whether they stay forever or take their talents on the road, are “connected to New Haven for life.”

New Haven Promise pays up to 100% of tuition costs at a student’s in-state public college of choice, depending on their length of time in the district, filling whatever gap is left after federal Pell Grants are calculated. Students who attend Connecticut private partner colleges receive up to $2,500 per year, with additional benefits offered by the University of New Haven, Quinnipiac University and Albertus Magnus College. The benefit is available to all New Haven families, regardless of need. “We want a city that’s diverse economically with a strong economy and a strong school system, so we need the whole spectrum,” Melton says. “I can tell you this has kept those middle class families in the city.” Even the smallest scholarships are worth a lot, says Erving Xochipiltecatl, a 2011 Hill Regional Career High School graduate and a member of the first class of Promise scholars, who received a 25% benefit as the program was ramping up. “It may not sound like a lot,” Xochipiltecatl says, “but when you really have nothing, that’s a lot to you, and it was a lot to me at the time.”

“I remember the day it was announced,” says college junior Eva Knaggs, who was then a student at Edgewood School, “and my dad was like”—she conjures his sigh of relief—“‘You can go to college!’” But this is no free ride. Students must maintain at least a B average in high school, have 90% attendance, do 40 hours of community service and live in the city starting in ninth grade at the latest. A related program, Passport to Promise, gives students with a GPA as low as 2.5 the opportunity to compete for scholarships. While in college, students must meet GPA and course load requirements.

Launched under the leadership of then-mayor John DeStefano, New Haven Promise is a joint effort of Yale University, The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, Yale-New Haven Hospital and Wells Fargo. Private donations are also accepted. NHP is based on “promise programs” in other cities, but Melton says New Haven’s is more robust than most. In addition to disbursing scholarships, it partners with local employers to create paid internships for students, who are expected to contribute toward the cost of their own educations with their earnings. Sitting at a conference table in NHP’s office just off Audubon Street, Melton whips out a pie chart that documents the actual cost of college, which goes far beyond tuition to include fees, room and board, books and incidental expenses—about 61% of educational costs on average. Institutional grants and scholarships, family savings, student loans and those paid internships cover this portion of the bill.

Knaggs, who is now at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, has held an NHP internship at Yale’s Beinecke Library since the summer of 2019, which also carried her through a pandemic break from school. The experience of curating stories and creating videos for the library’s social media platforms and becoming acquainted with some of its treasures has influenced her to study architecture. As an out-of-state student, Knaggs ended up forgoing a Promise scholarship, but she says even students who expect to leave the state should apply for New Haven Promise in order to take advantage of the internship program and other possible benefits, including peer mentorship, career support and alumni engagement. The program also offers college academic support to its scholarship recipients.

Today, a couple hundred former NHP scholars are out there in the community. Xochipiltecatl is one of them. He took his funding to Quinnipiac University, graduating in 2015, and is now a portfolio and grant accountant at the Yale School of Medicine while pursuing an MBA from the University of Connecticut. When he bought a house for his “tight-knit” family, he chose to stay in New Haven partly to make NHP available to his two younger siblings. He also stayed, he says, “to make my tiny grain of salt contribution to the New Haven economy.”

Challenges remain for New Haven Promise as it matures. For one, the organization needs more staff, Melton says, in order to offer more programming. Volunteers could help fill some of that need in areas like financial literacy and entrepreneurship. Nevertheless, NHP cites New Haven successes that it believes are attributable, at least in part, to its work: The city’s Black and Hispanic high school graduation rates outstrip those of Bridgeport, Hartford and Waterbury. The graduation rate has risen from 64 percent at the start of the program to 80 percent. And NHPS enrollment is at a 50-year high. In addition, the college graduation rate for Promise scholars beats the national rate.

When asked what the most exciting part of the program is, though, Melton homes in on individuals, not statistics. She points, literally, to Deven Ladson, the young man sitting beside her. He grew up in Fair Haven Heights, graduated from Engineering and Science University Magnet School and studied communications at Eastern Connecticut State University on a Promise scholarship. He’s now working in the field of communications—at New Haven Promise.

New Haven Promise
28 Lincoln Way, New Haven (map)
(203) PROMISE (776-6473) |

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

More Stories