Kauffman Foundation Learns It's Not So Easy to Give Away College Educations

Fulfilling its founder's 1988 promise to provide free college educations to students in a troubled Kansas City, Missouri, school has been a learning experience for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation as well as for the students themselves.

The original program, which expanded from a freshman class at a single high school to include other classes and schools, set several conditions: Students had to graduate within four years, be drug-tested, and not become pregnant. But despite some shining success stories and the $22 million spent on the initiative by 2001, only 56 percent of the 1,394 students in the program graduated from high school, and only 16 percent went on to earn a bachelor's degree.

Why was it so difficult to fulfill such a winning promise? "Mr. Kauffman had no idea how far behind these kids were," said Tom Rhone, the program's director. As the program developed, the foundation learned several lessons: Dropout prevention and other support services were essential, as was cooperation from the schools; enrollment in ninth grade was too late for many students to catch up; and the promise of a college degree was simply too abstract. And while the drug testing worked well, the pregnancy rule proved unrealistic and was abandoned.

The foundation is now trying to set realistically high expectations and is willing to spend heavily to get results. Its new program, which has earmarked $70 million for twenty-five hundred Kansas City students over twenty years, starts with seventh graders, and there are now partnerships and bridge programs with colleges. In addition, the foundation is pressuring colleges to pay some of the students' tuition rather than letting Kauffman shoulder the full burden. "We're less na�ve this time," said foundation president Carl Schramm.

Michael Winerip. "A Promise of Education and Its Lasting Legacy" New York Times 04/23/2003.