In 1988, Merrill Lynch made a remarkable promise to 250 randomly selected inner-city first-graders, predominantly Black, in 10 cities across the United States: Finish high school, get into college and the company would pay the full cost of your higher education. Merrill Lynch partnered with the National Urban League, 10 Urban League affiliates and the different urban school districts to design the program. The cities were Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

The firm set aside $2,000 per student per year – an investment that would grow to $16 million over the next 12 years.

This program was called “ScholarshipBuilder.”

With impressive commitment and sustained coordination, company and local Urban League volunteers worked with school officials, the students, families and other partners in the community to create a cocoon of encouragement and support – tutoring, mentoring, and cultural enrichment – as the children made their way through the school years.  Several years in, the decision was made to hire full-time coordinators to strengthen management of the program.

Six years later – in the spring of 1994 – celebrations were held in each city to mark the half-way point in the students’ journeys.  It was a time of change – the Scholars moving up to middle-schools, some dispersing from the cohort groups they had first joined, and some moving with families to other neighborhoods or even cities.  National and local program leaders met to assess the program and make adjustments. Subsequently, some coordinators even took offices in high schools where the Scholars were headed.

Twelve years later, in the spring of 2000 (some in 2001), more than 90 percent of this special group graduated from high school – an extraordinary success rate, given the 40-45 percent average for students in comparable urban districts at the time – and 95 percent of the graduating cohort went on to enter college, trade school, or military service. The goal was to support the students staying in secondary school, graduating, and becoming independent, productive and contributing members of society. The cocoon of support was kept in place; the Scholars were encouraged to nurture dreams and to pursue them.

Commencement ceremonies were held in all 10 cities – and a national celebration convened July 30-Aug. 1, 2000.  All graduating students were brought to New York, where they had tours of Merrill Lynch, the World Trade Center, the American Museum of Natural History as well as workshops in computers, financial literacy and the college experience.  Among dignitaries addressing the Scholars and their families were Merrill Lynch CEO Dave Komansky and National Urban League President Hugh Price Jr.

Said Komansky: “In today’s inner-city schools, it is often the case that every other student drops out of high school. So our 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 and we’re tremendously proud of them. Most important, all of us, working together, have made a real difference in the lives of these young people.”

Said Price: “ScholarshipBuilder is enormously valuable because it is serving and propelling a number of children forward who might not have that chance. The ScholarshipBuilder students are the future entrepreneurs, employees, taxpayers, customers, and neighbors of every American. The more highly developed these young people are – the more they can contribute to the productivity in our country.”

Even The New York Times weighed in: “The Merrill Lynch program, ScholarshipBuilder, stands out as the longest and one of the most successful programs of its kind, with 93 percent of the students – not counting two who died – heading to college in the fall.”

With optimism, the Scholars returned home, most preparing to embark on their college careers or some other form of higher education.  With mechanisms in place, Merrill would make good in the years ahead on its promise to pay for those studies. Many of the mentors and coordinators continued to play roles in the students’ lives.  But with the program goal completed, there was no provision for formal follow-up after high school.  The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 damaged one of the Merrill headquarters buildings, causing the destruction or loss of most records.

In 2017, three former Merrill colleagues – each of whom had been intimately involved in the program – got together and decided to try to locate as many of the students as possible and to find out how they had fared.  With few records to go on, they faced a daunting task. They called it The ScholarshipBuilder Study and Reunion Project (see “About the Project”), funded by personal donations from more than 130 donors.  The Project team located 160 of the graduates, surveyed or interviewed many, and used the data to project key program outcomes. 

And on Nov. 22, 2000 – 32 years exactly after the original launch of the program – the Project hosted a virtual ScholarshipBuilder Reunion to release findings and a stunning documentary, “A Chance to Win.”