Who’s Promise Is It?


When a Promise program begins, there are all kinds of questions. Two of the most important ones are: “What are you trying to accomplish?” and “How can you ensure the money lasts?”

And while Promise scholarship dollars obviously benefit those who receive them, they can also be used to fortify a school system. Places like Kalamazoo, Mich., and New Haven, Conn., are quick to point out that enrollment in public schools have made a dramatic turn once a Promise is in place.

So last night in Richmond, Calif., the City Council was confronted with residents urging them to make Richmond Promise benefits available to charter and private school students. Those who were against a strict traditional public school element held signs and made pleas late into the evening.

Here’s one response — a single Promise program can’t do everything. What it can do is develop a culture and leave room for additional programs to be established by motivated individuals who feel the need to address a gap. The nation’s first Promise program — the Bernard Daly Scholarship Fund in Lake County, Ore. — began in 1922 and 18 years later others started a similar program focused on funding out-of-state students that the Daly Fund wouldn’t cover. Both programs still exist.

The issue hanging out there for the City Council, which has vowed to submit a final Richmond Promise Strategic Action Plan at its next meeting, is whether its Promise will be used as an incentive to bolster its public schools.

It’s a question that many places have faced, including down in Greensboro, N.C., where Say Yes To Education recently set up shop. Should a component of a Promise program’s mission be to uplift a city’s school system by investing in those who’ve invested in it?

The answer is not an easy one.

In My Mind, I’m Going To Carolina


We’ve been writing about this since January, but now we can officially say it — Welcome and congratulations, Guilford County!

Say Yes To Education — founded by George Weiss in 1987 in Philadelphia — made the official announcement today that Guilford County, which is home to both Greensboro and High Point, is its newest partner.

Led locally by the Guilford Education Alliance, the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, the High Point Community Foundation and Guilford County Schools, the region has already raised $32.5 million toward its $70 million goal to fund the endowment for last-dollar tuition scholarships. The district — which has a whopping 72,000 students — is comprised of largely low-income and minority students.

“They often have the smarts, they have the GPA, but the money is not there,” said Felicia Andrews, a parent and local Say Yes organizer.

The current class of seniors — more than 5,000 in total — will be eligible for the funds, although details regarding scholarship eligibility are still being finalized. More than 100 private colleges and universities are part of the Say Yes Higher Education Compact, which also serves students from Say Yes programs in both Buffalo and Syracuse.

Why Guilford County? “We had roughly 130 different cities and counties that we looked at, and we winnowed the list down to literally three, and Guilford County just blew everybody out of the ballpark,” Weiss told Katie Arcieri of the Triad Business Journal. “What made the county stand out? Every time we had a board meeting, Guilford County was just shining like a star. There was really no discussion. What we need is people to put aside their differences and just help the kids, and that’s what Guilford County did.”

So it was easy to say yes.

Protecting The Promises


At its best, the Promise movement attacks the opportunity gap. But to sustain a Promise program is hardly an easy task. By design, such a program motivates students to perform well academically thus a growing number are expected to meet the requirements each year. On top of that, there is no indication that increasing college costs will level off.

So Promise programs — perhaps the best intervention in attacking the opportunity gap — struggle to keep up. Most of the recent Promise news is focused on finance. Here’s a spin around the nation:

star-denverVoters in Denver, Colo., might be asked to take on responsibility of funding the Denver Scholarship Foundation. The proposal before the Denver City Council is a sales tax increase of 0.08 percent — less than a penny for a $10 purchase — which would generate about $10 million for the scholarship organization. One councilman reported that his constituency is asking why this has become a city responsibility, but a recent study uncovered a nine-fold return on money spent by the Denver Scholarship Foundation. That in a state that has been ranked 47th in the U.S. for higher education funding.

Known locally as UIC, the University of Illinois-Chicago recently stepped up to sweeten the pot for recipients of the Chicago Star Scholarship, which gives free community college tuition to high-performing city students. UIC has offered guaranteed admission and up to $5,000 in support for those who earn an associate’s degree through the program. And outspoken Mayor Rahm Emanuel promised to be knocking on the doors of others to talk about their “responsibility to the kids of Chicago.” Emanuel made it clear that he wants higher ed support and he wants it soon, saying, “It would be easy to step back, observe the problem, study the problem, have a couple papers written on the problem, have a symposium on the problem, discuss what people should do about the problem and then go for a break and have a cup of coffee.”

Down in Greensboro, N.C., where more than $25 million has been raised toward an endowment for a Say Yes To Education program, city officials were hardly unanimous in their support of the initiative. At issue? The leaders of the campaign did not reach out to the Guilford County Board of Commissioners until “the ninth inning,” according to the board chair. That county board is also displeased that the early discussion did not include the county’s charter school students, which is “significantly different than where [the Say Yes to Education] board thought we were headed,” according to Gene Chasin of Say Yes.

Two faculty members of the University of Pittsburgh penned an op-ed piece in the Post-Gazette that asked for a focus on state funding for higher education, instead of hand-wringing about recent changes to the Pittsburgh Promise. Lindsay Page and Jennifer Iriti wrote that the purchasing power of the Promise will decline in the face of a lack of support of higher education in the state. “As a community, we should celebrate and grow the gift of The Promise, but we also should seek to protect that gift by pushing Harrisburg to reinvest in public higher education,” the piece concluded. “Without such reinvestment, continued increases in the costs of higher education faced by families will do more to hinder access to the promise and opportunity of higher education than the recent scaling back of The Pittsburgh Promise.”

The Latest On The Promise


Cities of Promise took an unexpected break this summer as the Promise here in New Haven has been running wild with records being set — by wide margins — for both paid summer internships and Promise recipients. So let’s dive in and get caught up with the movement.

Big news out West, where the place-based scholarship initiative began in Lake County more than 90 years ago. The Oregon Promise — recently signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown — will assist approximately 5,000 students at 17 community colleges starting in the 2016-17 school year. “We like to study things in Oregon. And for the last two years, we have been studying how to make this happen here,” said Democratic State Senator Mark Hass said. “Under the Obama administration, funding for Pell Grants has doubled. It would be smart for Oregon to take advantage of those dollars.” Here is a fact sheet.

That’s not the only place talking Promise. Down in Baltimore, political, education and philanthropic leaders are exploring an $80-million commitment to free college for city students. Say Yes To Education — the George Weiss-founded program that funds initiatives in both Syracuse and Buffalo — has asked Baltimore to submit a proposal to support the strategy. “We’re committed to looking for ways to provide access to more of our young people,” said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. “And this process that we’re in now is making sure that Say Yes is the right fit for Baltimore and that Baltimore is the right fit for Say Yes.” An editorial in the Baltimore Sun called the plan a “moon-shot” and asked several questions about deployment.

Don’t forget that down in Greensboro, N.C., officials are raising money to become a Say Yes city as well. Just today, the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro announced a new $1 million donation, which gives the initiative more than $25 million. That’s within $3 million of the goal.

Other communities have moved to establish a Promise program in recent weeks — from Lowell, Mass., to Grove City, Ohio, to Lancaster, Pa. The folks from Lancaster — who are looking to Pittsburgh for a road map — came to PromiseNet 2014 in New Haven in an exploratory mission.

There is a mixed bag of new from within the existing Promise community. In Kalamazoo, Mich., a paper called “Effects of the Kalamazoo Promise Scholarship on College Enrollment, Persistence and Completion” was released by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. “The question with The Promise has always been: Does it have a large effect? The answer is yes,” co-author Tim Bartik told the Kalamazoo Gazette. “I was actually surprised to see how big of an effect it had, and that it was so clear-cut.” But stories from both the Brookings Institute and the Wall Street Journal called the results “disappointing.” Gotta say, reporting an increase of low-income students in Kalamazoo as evidence of a lack of success is a bit of a stretch. We did have a significant recession since the program launched in 2005 and has become the inspiration for replication across the country.

The editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette weighed in on the recent announcement that the Pittsburgh Promise will be reducing its lifetime benefit from $40,000 to $30,000. That switch became necessary when an assessment yielded the news that the program was set to run out of funds in 2022. That has now been backed up to 2028 and extended opportunity for the community to deliver support. “Officials and board members at the Promise must ramp up their efforts to persuade individuals, corporations and foundations to contribute,” wrote the Post-Gazette board.

In Richmond, Calif., where Chevron settlement money has yet to flow into the Richmond Promise, the West Contra Costa school board had a meeting earlier this month and clearly demonstrated that they need to explore and better understand the initiative. One board member called anything but flat funding “a recipe for disaster,” even though other programs have implemented that successfully. Another felt that earlier intervention was a better way to spend the money while failing to understand that motivating and incentivizing students with a longer vision of a successful life provides better outcomes.

The much ballyhooed Tennessee Promise is expected to provide more than $1,000 to students enrolled in community college, but a large swath of the applicants have failed to perform their community service requirement. That hasn’t stopped the Promise from being a game changer across the state as four-year colleges have been working to address the new landscape. Those schools have tweaked recruiting measures — looking at a wider geographical range, encouraging transfer students to apply and even matching the benefits of the Promise itself. “We can’t do all the things we did three years ago,” said Middle Tennessee State University spokesperson Andrew Oppmann. “We’re trying to be a part of the change, not just let the change wash over us.”

And finally, down in Georgia, officials are looking to address the way that the Georgia HOPE Scholarship has become an option for the elite with its 3.7 GPA and 1200 SAT requirements. State representative Stacey Evans is concerned that low-income students who have attended less academically challenging schools are being ignored. “Those are the ones I believe HOPE was intended to help,” she told USA Today. “Those students who are hardworking, studious and smart.”

Those who work with the Promise movement know that it is a game-changer. Cities of Promise is focused on creating awareness to that fact to those who don’t know.