Should ESPN Fund A Bristol Promise?

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By Brett Hoover

When former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison this week, it was another blow to Bristol, Conn., a city of about 60,000 which sits about 20 miles west of the state capitol, Hartford.

Hernandez is not just a son of Bristol, he was both a prep star and honor student at Bristol Central High. Two years ago — just three weeks before the murder of which he would be convicted — he was given a Pop Warner Inspiration to Youth Award.

“He was Bristol’s golden boy. People had a lot of hopes and dreams on his shoulders,” J.R. Rusgrove, owner of the city’s Parkside Cafe, told Don Stacom of the Hartford Courant. “Some people are shocked. I think everybody is really sad.”

While the outside world has come to know Bristol as the home of ESPN, the self-appointed “World Wide Leader in Sports,” insiders must recognize that — despite the massive infusion of tax dollars from the network and its countless spinoffs — the former factory town is struggling with little sign of a turnaround.

While its minority and low-income student populations nearly tripled in the last 15 to 20 years, the school district’s workforce lacks the diversity of its learners. And in just the last seven years the district has experienced a double-digit percentage decrease in enrollment.

What does that mean for the next decade? Researchers from the University of Connecticut and officials from the school district disagree. Both recognize that enrollment will continue a downward trend, but the debate is simply its rapidity.

While ESPN’s sprawling campus with more than 4,000 employees has been a tremendous asset, not all of the attention has been positive. Some of ESPN’s best-known figures have been sarcastically critical of the city and the perception is that a significant number of employees swing through the empire’s gates to and from work, never stopping to support Bristol.

This is not to say that the corporate executives have not helped city officials improve the community. Not long ago, ESPN donated $1 million to the Bristol Boys & Girls Club and many employees do volunteer their time. Yet the question remains — is it enough?

Is it ESPN’s responsibility to make a real commitment to Bristol in the form of a Promise program which makes college affordable for those who achieve? Probably not. Would it be wise for ESPN to make that commitment to the place where it has continuously constructed its campus for more than three decades now? Surely.

Within the last year Forbes reported that ESPN’s value had eclipsed $50 billion. Located within a school district of fewer than 8,000 students, ESPN could easily fund a $1 million-a-year program similar to the one in nearby New Haven and another starting in Hartford in 2016.

After all, a $1 million gift from ESPN is equivalent to a man with $500 sparing a penny.


ADDENDUM (10:50 AM): A December 2013 New York Times story about ESPN indicated that the company has received more than a quarter-billion dollars in state tax breaks and credits little more than a decade, including “savings of about $15 million a year since the network successfully lobbied the state for a tax code change in 2000.”


Brett Hoover — who formerly served as the Associate Director of the Ivy League — convinced ESPN to bring its live College GameDay Show to an Ivy League venue, Harvard at Penn, in 2002. That show — which drew a record audience — opened the GameDay tour to the full spectrum of college football.

A Tale of Two Cities… Maybe Three

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Say Yes to Education has been in the news locally in its two well-established New York cities as well as a potential third location in Greensboro, N.C.

First the good news. In Buffalo, school officials have reported that the college-going rate among students from Buffalo City Schools is on the rise since the launch of the Say Yes Buffalo initiative in 2012. In just that short time the percentage of graduates who enroll in college has jumped from 57 percent to 64 percent.

“It shows that this investment is working and year over year,” SYB Director Dave Rust told WKBW reporter Desiree Wiley. “How it’s about an additional 250 graduates that are choosing to go on to college or post-secondary programs.”

But Dave Tobin of the Syracuse Post-Standard recently reported that the promise of free tuition at New York’s public colleges may be coming to an end in Syracuse. While partnerships in Buffalo have proven successful in its early fundraising efforts, Say Yes Syracuse has fallen far short of its goals.

The national office of Say Yes to Education has covered costs for more than 2,500 students in Syracuse, but does not plan to continue that funding. Organization president Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey said that the city received unique benefit because it was the first to adopt the comprehensive city-wide approach and, in that role, it served as an incubator for learning.

But now Syracuse officials and business leaders will need to step up to keep the scholarships in place. Tobin’s story also mentioned an additional point of contention — that Syracuse Schools have been either unable or unwilling to implement a monitoring system which is in place in Buffalo and deemed vital by Say Yes. The absence of the system leaves the funders unable to assess the program’s success, leaving it with “one arm tied behind our back,” according to Schmitt-Carey.

Despite the concerns in Syracuse, the folks in Greensboro remain uber-excited about the potential of Say Yes launching in Guilford County. On Tuesday night soon-to-be presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson spoke at a sold-out fundraiser with proceeds benefitting the Say Yes initiative, which has generated about $10 million in short order. Officials there will learn this summer if Say Yes will officially launch its first non-Northeast program in the region.

Inspiring An Academic Eye of the Tiger

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The trend of major city community colleges to make tuition-free opportunities available to its students continued last week as the Community College of Philadelphia announced such an initiative — called the 50th Anniversary Scholarship — for low-income graduates of the city’s beleaguered school district.

With the announcement, the City of Brotherly Love joins Chicago, Ill.; Detroit, Mich.; Miami, Fla.; Seattle, Wash.; and Portland, Ore., with similar programs focused exclusively on two-year colleges.

The Community College of Philadelphia’s foundation will cover costs for the program, which will begin immediately for the Class of 2015, and has a goal to raise $10 million to create an endowment. The hope is to build that to $40 million and cover such expenses as books in the future.

Wrote Susan Snyder of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “College officials estimate that 440 students will qualify for the program in the first year and by the third year, the number will rise to 845.”

“There are far too many students who, even with financial aid, are unable to meet the gap that exists between the financial aid they get and what final tuition would be,” said college president Guy Generals. “We do think it will attract more students, which increases enrollment. For us, that’s a good thing.”

In addition to students from the public school system — which has experienced a troubling number of layoffs and school closings in recent years — the Scholarship is also available to those in private, parochial and charter schools.

Students will need to maintain a 2.5 grade-point average at the end of each academic year to keep the scholarship, which allows three years for degree completion. Other requirements include participation in an extracurricular activity and a support program as well as a once-a-semester meeting with an advisor.

With Promise Comes A Trust

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If you came up with a prioritized list of concerns for almost every Promise program or nearly everyone looking to start a Promise program, the top item — perhaps the top two or three — would be funding.

Last December, our own Patricia Melton wrote a story about college costs surpassing even lottery income in a number of states, forcing legislatures to reduce award amounts or tighten qualification standards. This morning, Inside Higher Ed published a story focused on sustainability of Promise programs nationwide and spoke to Melton about that piece.

As the Executive Director of New Haven Promise, she told Kaitlin Mulhere that “directors have to be wise stewards of money year to year, always on the lookout for fluctuations in economics, enrollment and even politics.”

Dr. Michelle Miller-Adams of the Upjohn Institute — who has helped several cities develop results-based Promise programs — added that it is wise to “caution people to underpromise and overdeliver.”

Dwindling state support can also impact Promise programs, whose guidelines are often devised within the financial framework of the time of the announcement without enough thought about the future. Less than a month ago, Arizona lawmakers simply gutted its largest community colleges. No Promise program in the nation could adequately react to such a seismic shift in the college affordability landscape. Thus Promise programs must be precise from the start to develop funding, programming and language that is sustainable.

Rodney Andrews — who focuses on the economics of education as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas — told Mulhere that failing to create sustainable revenue streams and mitigate factors beyond one’s control can lead to trouble.

“If not,” Andrews said. “You have to make some changes to the promise, which sort of defeats the purpose of making a promise.”