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At first glance, a program launched last week that will provide college scholarships for up to 2,600 current ninth-graders attending public schools in Milwaukee looks similar to a growing number of initiatives across the country designed to give students the boost they need to pursue a college degree.

But The Degree Project is different in one significant way: It was built from the ground up as a research project to collect data and to examine whether these so-called promise programs are a wise use of funds in an era of limited resources.

"What we want to look at is if there is clear evidence that these programs work," says Douglas Harris, a UW-Madison associate professor of educational policy studies who helped design the project and is its evaluator.

On Nov. 17, officials with the Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation and Affiliates, a nonprofit based in Madison that is one of the nation's leading guarantors and servicers of student loans, unveiled The Degree Project. Great Lakes randomly selected 18 sites in the Milwaukee Public Schools that educate ninth graders and then announced at surprise assemblies to the students that if they graduate from high school and meet certain eligibility requirements, they'll earn scholarships worth up to $12,000. Those scholarships can be used between 2015 and 2019 so students can continue their education at any of 64 participating two- and four-year colleges and universities across the state.

Harris says he isn't a big fan of how financial aid is currently distributed and is interested in figuring out whether or not promise programs might be a better way to help those who are most in need. These initiatives typically promise students that if they follow certain guidelines and graduate from high school, a spot in college and scholarships to pay for much of that higher education will be provided.

"With the existing financial aid system, we wait until a student finishes high school before telling them how much money they might receive," he says. "In the meantime, these students keep hearing all these messages about how expensive college is. We're thinking a lot get off-track or start thinking college really isn't for them because they can't afford it. But if we can get to students early on and really let them know it's affordable and give them a grant -- not just a loan -- we are hoping to get them thinking about college in a different way from an early stage."

This appears to be an especially important message to deliver to students whose families are not economically well off. Martha Bailey, an economist at the University of Michigan, recently told that research she conducted indicates that 54 percent of students from wealthy families (annual household income of more than $87,000) completed their college degrees during the late 1990s and early 2000s, while only 9 percent of students from low-income households (less than $26,000 annually) did so.

State legislators, business leaders and higher education administrators alike have spent time in recent weeks stressing the need for Wisconsin to increase its number of college graduates so it can remain relevant in what many are calling the future knowledge-based economy. To accomplish this, more students who typically might not consider going to college -- particularly minorities and those from families with limited financial resources -- must be convinced to continue their education after picking up a high school diploma.

Currently, only 36 percent of Milwaukee Public Schools graduates enroll in college immediately after graduation. Statewide, 59.1 percent of high school graduates directly enroll in higher education, a number that trails the national average of 63.3 percent.

Some cities across the country -- including Pittsburgh and Kalamazoo, Mich. -- have turned to promise programs in an attempt to get more students thinking seriously about pursuing a college degree. While The Degree Project in Wisconsin is similar to these initiatives, there also are some key differences.

Unlike in Pittsburgh and Kalamazoo, for example, not everyone in Milwaukee will have access to the scholarships. Not only is The Degree Project only for those currently in ninth grade, but only 2,600 of the 7,300 high school freshmen across the city will be able to participate. In addition to not having funding available to promise all these ninth graders a scholarship, this also provides a control group of students against which Harris can measure the effect of the program.

"There have been two evaluations coming out of Pittsburgh and Kalamazoo and each say, ‘Well, we really need a better study of this,'" says Harris, noting that neither of these programs was set up as an experiment. "Logically, it seems like these promise programs ought to work, but we need to look at this closer. The fact that the results of The Degree Project study could change the way the financial aid system is set up is very exciting."

Not all students taking part in The Degree Project will receive the full $12,000 scholarship. Instead, the initiative will cover the difference between the cost of college attendance (tuition and fees) and the amount of grant aid and other scholarship funds a student is awarded.

"Our goal is to have as many students as possible not take on any student loans to pay for their education," says Amy Kerwin, the chief guaranty officer at Great Lakes.

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Kerwin says the Milwaukee district was picked because it's the largest in the state and those who attend its schools are generally in need of financial help; 82 percent of students attending Milwaukee Public Schools are eligible for free and reduced-cost lunches.

"We wanted to make the scholarship available to as many students with significant financial need as possible, but we didn't want to have an application process to sign up for the program," says Kerwin. "We know the vast majority of people in MPS do have financial need."

To earn The Degree Project scholarship, students must graduate from high school within four years and maintain at least a 2.5 cumulative grade-point average. They also must attend class at least 90 percent of the time.

"The ultimate goal of the scholarship is to have students graduate from high school on time and to prepare them for college," says Kerwin. "We know students who aren't achieving that 2.5 GPA or who aren't in school nearly every day willing to learn aren't going to be successful in college."

If the program were to be 100 percent successful -- with every student using the full $12,000 -- Great Lakes would provide more than $31 million in scholarships between 2015 and 2019. Although Great Lakes is providing the scholarship funding, Harris notes it is not paying for the evaluation. He says a donor who wishes to remain anonymous has put forward $280,000 to cover the early portion of the evaluation, and he is seeking additional funds to move the research forward.

Harris will be tracking student grades, attendance and disciplinary incidents, among a range of factors, over the next several years before ultimately looking very closely at which students go on and earn a college degree. He expects to track the current ninth graders in the program through at least 2020.

"We really want to see if the program, in fact, makes a difference," says Great Lakes' Kerwin. "If it does and we can demonstrate that, we are hoping the program can be expanded and funders will jump on board and we can make it available to a much, much larger group of students instead of this single cohort of ninth graders."

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