“Promise” programs require deep pockets, deeper commitment

Anne Kress, president, Monroe Community College today shared an article via Twitter recounting several community-based initiatives designed to provide local residents with funding toward a college degree. Its findings concluded two recurring challenges:

  1. Lack of measurable and reliable benchmarks
  2. Lack of sustainable and sufficient funding

Kress, a fervent advocate for community colleges and member of both the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council and the newly-formed Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Steering Committee, asked followers, “What if we had a Rochester Promise? Would it change the future for our youth? Our city?”


Promise Programs a costly proposition 

Establishing such an initiative requires a tremendous financial undertaking. For example, Pittsburgh’s current program requires a $15 million annual campaign despite a $100 million gift over 10 years from University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. To put this number in perspective, the annual ask of the Pittsburgh community is equivalent to 62.5 percent of this year’s United Way of Greater Rochester total campaign goal of $24 million.

Financial needs aside, the initial results of similar programs do reveal pockets of progress in terms of overall high school and college enrollment as well as improvements in achievement scores. These gains would be welcome in the Rochester region — especially among city schools where performance continues to struggle. Still, community leaders in other areas of the country remain cautiously optimistic due to a lack of data and long-term concerns tied to all-important funding.

Poverty stats a call for referendum on current leadership?

For the Rochester region, a Promise Program risks becoming yet another short-term distraction in a region historically high on ideas and low on results. Central to this dilemma is the recurring cast that appears at various summits and as signatories on promissory documents pledging support in the name of jobs, safer communities and stronger schools.

For example, the same leaders who enthusiastically backed New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recently launched Anti-Poverty Task Force have held influential positions for several terms, including Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks, NYS Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle, and Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, former president of Rochester City Council; their combined experience represents more than 50 years in public office. In effect, Rochester’s economic conditions declined under their watch.

How a Promise Program might change the behavior of businesses

The current anti-poverty initiative includes some business leaders from the private sector. Their voice could help direct the efforts of a potential Promise Program toward even more tangible outcomes–skills and employment following completion of certificate and degree programs. Their participation, however, would require a significant reallocation of resources and time toward a unified effort.

To provide a greater number of employers with incentives, Governor Cuomo and the Empire State Development Corporation might consider introducing tax credit programs for private-sector businesses based on specific, measured efforts that support Rochester’s anti-poverty initiatives. In contrast to Cuomo’s current tax-free zones, these programs would be implemented based on a company’s long-term behavior change versus their physical location alone.

Promise Program no guarantee of a pipeline

Critics of Promise Programs cite inconsistency, poor performance, and studies that report college graduates are likely to leave the very neighborhoods these programs are designed to improve. Regardless, the challenges of a Promise Program in Rochester reinforce a larger need–an overarching vision and mission that unifies the limited resources from the private and public sector across the entire upstate New York region. Without this, any chance of a Promise Program would likely become a single swing in Rochester’s revolving door rather than a celebrated milestone on the pathway to real, sustainable progress for its most disadvantaged people.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jeff Smink says:

    David, Enjoyed your post. I particularly like that you called out the current leadership that has overseen and contributed to the problems they now want to fix. I wish more people would call this out. This community is in desperate need of new voices and leadership. I do disagree with your statement that Rochester has a history of too many ideas (not the results part), particularly related to poverty and education. Other than the Children’s Zone, which occurred before I moved back, I haven’t seen any bold ideas or initiatives, just lots and lots of meetings, reports, conversations, etc…

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