The power of a promise and student support, 32 years later

A study from the National Urban League and Merrill Lynch looking back at a cohort of urban children in the 1980s shows how impactful early intervention can be.
By: | December 2, 2020
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What can a strong early intervention system do for even the most disadvantaged students?

For a group children who were enrolled in urban K-12 public schools back in the 1980s and 90s, the power of comprehensive academic programs and a promise led most of them to enjoy successful educations and career paths.

The three-year ScholarshipBuilder Study and Reunion Project, which unearthed an initiative launched by the National Urban League and Merrill Lynch starting in 1988, showed that more than 80 percent of those students who attended 10 districts graduated high school and earned either two-year or four-year college degrees. Nearly a quarter of them earned master’s degrees while a handful attained doctorates.

Of the initial cohort of 250 first-graders, 160 of them were eventually tracked down by both organizations and are showcased in a new report entitled “The ScholarshipBuilder Children of 1988: How They Fared, Examining the Impact of a Unique Early-Intervention Academic Program on 250 Inner-City Children.”

At the time, those children were made a simple promise – graduate high school and college costs would be covered. They were given “tutoring, mentoring and cultural enrichment for 12 years.” The results:  They followed through, with 90% graduating in 2000, nearly doubling the average for peers in similar economic and demographic circumstances.

“The success rates for the ScholarshipBuilder children after high school were significantly higher than we had anticipated,” said Dr. Westina Matthews, former secretary of the Merrill Lynch Foundation. “The stories are heart-warming and – most important of all — ripe with lessons about the effectiveness of comprehensive, long-term and early-intervention educational support programs for children in low-income school districts.”

Those stories include off-the-chart numbers for any group of students during that time. The most jaw-dropping is that 93% of them currently are employed in full-time positions. In simply comparing data from those urban students in the study to their peers, 84% of the cohort finished some post-secondary education while only 21% of those outside the group earned degrees.

David H. Komansky, former Chairman and CEO of Merrill Lynch, recalls how precarious those children’s situations were. “The ScholarshipBuilder children faced a tremendous challenge in graduating. With the help of their parents, teachers, mentors and so many community volunteers, they rose to the challenge. Now, it’s even more gratifying to see how well so many of them have done in college, careers and life.”

For John Jacob, former President and CEO of the National Urban League, the results illustrate just how impactful early support can be.

“I believe that if we continue to tell the story of ScholarshipBuilder, we can generate a new story about this so-called ‘lost population. If we can do this with 250 kids, America can do this with 250,000 kids.”