With Promise Comes A Trust

promise-trust

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.”

A Canary In A Coal Mine?

canary-coal-mine

There was reason Sweet Briar College’s announcement that it was going out of business came as such a shock last week. There was little indication — not even government metrics designed to warn against college instability — that the Virginia school was in dire straits.

But officials decided that waiting for the lights to be shut off was the least desirable way to cope with the inevitable. Sweet Briar — which has served its students for more than 100 years — will cease operation at the end of the school year.

In response to the news, Mark Cuban — the entrepreneurial billionaire who owns the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks — tweeted, “This is just the beginning of the college implosion.”

Those who have been following Cuban know that he has been warning of the “student-loan bubble” for years. He expressed his concerns on Inc.com last summer, but has also been writing about it since at least 2012.

He was so intent on ringing alarm bells, he developed a college loan debt clock, which shows students owe $1.3 trillion on college loans. Credit card and auto loan debt stands at $1.6 trillion with college loans closing fast.

“We freak out about the trillions of dollars in debt our country faces,” Cuban wrote three years ago. “What about the TRILLION DOLLARS plus in debt college kids are facing?”

“At some point it’s going to pop,” Cuban told Business Insider. “When you’re 18 years old and you don’t really understand all the nuances of what it’s going to cost to pay something back — it was almost inevitable.”

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, told Inside Higher Ed that “idiosyncratic” institutions — places like women’s colleges, historically black colleges and colleges of denominations — face unique challenges while larger public institutions will likely become the norm. Perhaps the challenging attributes unique to Sweet Briar — an all-woman liberal arts college in rural Virginia — extend far beyond the student-loan bubble, but Cuban’s “canary-in-the-coal-mine” fear is too great not to consider.

In fact, he isn’t the only heavy hitter trying to bring attention to a looming national crisis. In the week before Sweet Briar’s stunning announcement, six U.S. Senators — including Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal and Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren — penned a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan criticizing a system that suffocates students. “It is not the job of the Department of Education to maximize profits for the government at the cost of squeezing students,” the letter said.

Cities of Promise — which highlights programs trying to battle an unsustainable system (even lotteries couldn’t keep pace) — welcomes opinions, solutions, possibilities and anything else that can help push the conversation. What will colleges do to adapt? And when? If your business model is founded upon easy credit in a rapidly-changing environment, waiting is not an answer. Expecting young people and families to shoulder the burden will prove unwise.

As for Mark Cuban, we’d love to talk to you.