The nation’s college financial aid system is badly broken and getting worse. Students from mostly low and middle-income families now face nearly $1 trillion in college-related debt and, despite making such large investments, prospects are still low for college graduation. President Obama and congressional leaders have tried to address this problem by maintaining support for the federal Pell grant and making changes in loan programs. But is it time for a more fundamental rethinking of financial aid? Some students in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) may soon have a good answer. Last week, first-time ninth graders in 18 MPS schools gathered in assemblies to learn that they were eligible for a $12,000 college scholarship as part of a new program called “The Degree Project,” says Douglas Harris, associate professor of educational policy and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and co-director of the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study of financial aid, for Education Nation’s The Learning Curve blog. By promising the scholarship funds to students many years before they enter college, The Degree Project is considered a “promise scholarship.”

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