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July 9, 2020

Promise Leaders Talk Financial Sustainability

Panelists offer insights and recommendations on Keeping The Promise Through COVID-19

This blog post is part of a series of recordings for leaders in higher education, which aim to provide resources and strategies to Promise Program leaders, policymakers, philanthropy, and higher education administrators.  

This week, a panel of experts from Promise Programs across the nation speak on financial sustainability in the time of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted funding priorities for every sector and industry. Promise programs, higher education leaders, and advocates for affordable college are mobilizing to increase their support for students and to protect budgets from the cuts many fear are ahead. With student needs expanding, and millions still out of work as a consequence of the pandemic, program leaders are asking how will we keep the Promise?

A panel of experts participated in a College Promise virtual discussion to address financial sustainability in the current environment of economic downturn and uncertainty.  Randy Boyd, President of the University of Tennessee; Wytrice Harris, Manager of Detroit Promise Path; Sylvia Thompson, Director of the El Dorado Promise; and Jessie Stewart, Executive Director of Richmond Promise, discussed the challenges their programs are facing and the strategies they are employing to address them.

Boyd noted that though COVID-19 has impacted fundraising for new initiatives, the work of the Tennessee Promise has continued to attract prospects and support.  He acknowledged his team’s diligent and ongoing communication efforts for their role in the program’s success, but credits the program itself. “We've sent 90,000 students to technical or community college. It's a great story to tell,” Boyd said.

Though Tennessee Promise was initially funded through Tennessee based partners, the program has more recently expanded it’s support base to include national funders. Central to the program’s stability is this diverse funding base, which includes both private and public sources.

Both, Stewart and Thompson emphasized the essential role Promise Programs play in their communities and that of community partners in successful Promise Programs. “The pandemic has really highlighted the agility and ability of local organizations to recognize, respond, and adapt to the needs of our students,” Stewart said.

But, even as Richmond Promise supports students with dynamic programming, the team is currently working to diversify funding and to maintain focus on long term development goals, especially amid the pressures of the pandemic. Thompson likewise pointed to the need for buy-in from a broad range of stakeholders, beyond just those who are providing tuition funding.

Stewart noted that though Richmond Promise was launched as a scholarship program, she knew, “we had to build something that was more than a scholarship.”

Harris underscored this point, discussing the growing obstacles to academic success now looming ahead for even more students. She noted, "a lot of students that have been forced to move to online systems have never taken an online course before so they felt like fish out of water. 30% of students didn't have a device, didn't have wifi, or didn’t have both.”

Harris pointed to the Detroit Promise intrusive coaching program as an example of the kind of support networks that students will need to persist through this incredibly difficult period.

Promise Programs serve many different kinds of students and open opportunities for access to college for all. But, Harris emphasized, “In a time when there will be less, we need to make sure that we're giving more to the students who need it the most."

The July 8 webinar was moderated by Dr. Edward Smith, program officer at the The Kresge Foundation. Dr. Smith leads grantmaking and philanthropy for the foundation’s Education Program and manages a significant portfolio of grants focused on promoting college opportunity and degree completion for marginalized student groups.

Released in conjunction with the event, the latest College Promise Policy Brief by Martha Kanter, CEO of College Promise, is called “Keeping the Promise: Financial Sustainability in the Face of the COVID-19 Pandemic”. The brief analyzes financial risk factors facing Promise Programs and offers recommendations for withstanding the funding challenges ahead.

“Change can happen at every level— local, state, national. But it starts local.”

— Martha Kanter, CEO of College Promise

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