The Oakland Promise: An Experimental New Program

March 25, 2016

By Liz Glaser – Graduate Research Assistant 

In Oakland, California, Mayor Libby Schaaf recently decided it was time to take more proactive steps in ensuring her residents complete college. The Oakland Promise launched in January, and it is designed to be a multi-faceted program that utilizes a variety of initiatives to achieve success, encouraging and aiding every student to attend and complete college. According to the Oakland Promise website, the vision statement reads “We as a community will ensure every child in Oakland graduates high school with the expectations, resources, and skills to complete college and be successful in the career of his or her choice.”

The new Promise draws from relevant research about different college access programs that have worked in other cities. I spoke with Arianna Morales, who works at East Bay CAN, and she noted that the mayor and her team have really researched this topic, and “their capacity has grown to include many college readiness specialists,” which should lead to smart planning and decision-making. The city has coined it a “Cradle-to-career” approach, and the multi-pronged program includes:

•Brilliant Baby, which is a program that will create a college savings account with $500 in a baby’s name (starting with 250 families in the Fall 2016 pilot, growing annually); 
•Kindergarten 2 College, which is a goal to open a college savings account of $100 for every Oakland kindergartner by 2020; 
•Future Centers, which are in-school centers that have college advisers and readiness specialists to ensure that each student in Oakland high schools has a college plan; and 
•College Scholarships and Completion, which is a vision that every “qualifying student will have access to college scholarships of $1,000 to $16,000 over the course of his or her college career within a decade.”

Some supporters say it has the potential to be transformative, with Joel Laguerre arguing in the Oakland Tribune that “ensuring that parents and students do not see the Oakland Promise as an unreachable dream is one of the special strengths of this program.” Much of the support surrounds the inclusion of college savings accounts. San Francisco City runs a similar Kindergarten2College (K2C) program in their city, partnering with CitiBank, and it has so far seen good results: as of September 2015, families had saved “over $1.3 million of their own money for their children."  The city of San Francisco provides incentives for families who consistently save, and provides financial education and resources to ensure that families understand what the CSAs really include. Oakland would be building on that success by having a similar K2C program as well as CSAs at birth in Brilliant Baby.  Mayor Schaaf stated that Oakland is intending to “open 55,000 college savings accounts with $14 million in funds for children born into poverty…” as the program develops. This is a big goal, but one that demonstrates a commitment to serving the families in Oakland.  The communication and financial education that comes along with these savings accounts will be a function that impacts the success of the accounts.

Scholarships in Oakland will vary based on the type of college attended, and will not entirely cover the cost of tuition and fees, but they will certainly aid students by minimizing costs. One important aspect of the Oakland Promise is that there is a focus on resources and support that relate to more than money. Mayor Schaaf also included Future Centers, which are school-based advising centers that will be in every high school, with a staff devoted specifically to college readiness. Once in college, partners of the Promise have promised to generate support through mentoring, peer support, and other resources. In an undertaking as large as this one, it would be easy to rely on one initiative like scholarships or savings accounts, but the Mayor, her education director, and other supporters have explained that “the Oakland Promise aims to help parents and children prepare and save for college AND connect them to support system and resources." The framing and utilization of these supports will impact how well the partnerships succeed.

Oakland community responses to the Promise have generally been positive. Arianna Morales explained that East Bay CAN, which is part of the Marcus Foster Education Institute, believes in collaboration to develop long-lasting and durable partnerships with diverse organizations. The Oakland Promise has been collaborating with pre-existing groups (such as East Bay CAN) and those relationships will be integral to the success and maintenance of the new initiatives. By working within the community to build out, the Oakland Promise is demonstrating a commitment to the citizens that this new initiative is for them. Mayor Schaaf, in her speech at the program’s launch, stated “It’s time to end the tyranny of low expectations and break down the barriers of hope that have kept our children down for too long…We will tell every parent that their child is brilliant and is destined for an amazing future.”  These are high hopes, especially for a program that expects to make change in a variety of impact areas, but with community support and high expectations, we certainly hope to see success.

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