Experts: The Promise of College Requires Sustainable Funding

Princeton, N.J. (June 16, 2016) – Over 100 College Promise programs across the nation currently fund responsible students working to complete the first two years of community college. But, the future success of such efforts depends on sustainable funding and that’s what brought academic researchers, business leaders, foundation heads and economists to Princeton for a two-day conference this month.

The conference, “Designing Sustainable Funding for College Promise,” was co-sponsored by the College Promise Campaign and Educational Testing Service (ETS). Over 100 attendees heard presentations by five design teams offering different approaches to increase college access, affordability and completion. The findings will be published next fall and provided free-of charge so that interested parties may adopt or adapt them to local needs. The five approaches included: 

  • children’s savings accounts
  • state funding 
  • private funding, 
  • federal financial aid
  • social impact bonds/income share agreements

“We gathered to explore new ideas for sustainable funding to yield far greater results than we have today,” explained Martha Kanter, Executive Director of the College Promise Campaign. “We want to help build aspirations that college is an expectation, to expand college access, curb the drop-out rate, increase the number of students with college degrees, and reduce student debt. To do this, we looked inside and across communities, states and the federal government for solutions.”

“One of the most important takeaways from the conference was that College Promise is about more than money,” added Michael Nettles, Senior Vice President of ETS’s Center for Policy Evaluation & Research. “It’s about creating a workable, simple approach to creating a track that moves all students on to college. And, that process should begin early in the K-12 continuum.” 

During the conference, attendees were provided with a deeper look at the characteristics of College Promise and the growth of the movement, the challenge of understanding the variation among the more than 100 Promise programs, and opportunities to identify those that yield the results for communities, states and the nation. 

In the first presentation, attendees learned that Children’s Savings Accounts have a huge impact on changing American students’ aspirations to attend college. Presenters noted that less than 10% of students from low income families graduate from college by their mid-20s. The consensus was that savings accounts could improve student’s expectations that they can actually attend college by leveraging the power of regular saving. 

The second design team reported on State Funded Models, and the need to marry Promise programs to broader state or local policy goals for educational attainment and achievement. For entities considering a Promise program, it is crucial to have clear understanding of what promise is being made, to whom, for how long, and under what conditions.  

The third design team presented examples and concepts of Privately Funded Models including plans to establish a $1 billion endowment plan for HBCUs; working with U.S. Bank to connect merchants with consumers at the point of sale, leveraging the  amalgamated power of purchasing cards to generate a revenue stream for College Promise programs; marrying mentoring to pre-paid college scholarships, and turning institutions into federal work colleges allowing students to graduate with a school transcript and professional work experience. 

In the area of Federal Financial Aid, the fourth design team reported on the need to change a lot of college-bound behaviors including reducing the gap between resources available for low income and better-off students and having simple, predictable aid programs, The pros and cons of free college, federal support of “last-dollar” programs, government grants to institutions that promote success of low and moderate income students, and college savings accounts. It was generally agreed that states should increase funding for community college access and that the federal government should support and focus on efforts to promote opportunity and equity so students can succeed.

The final team researched Outcomes-Based Financing models which included both social impact bonds (SIBs) and income share agreements. SIBs provide the federal government with a mechanism to fund college-going programs as an incentive for students to graduate. The idea is that students with a higher education degree will save the government money in the long term because they will be less likely to require public assistance. Some attendees wondered who will pay back investors seeking a return on this investment.

With income share agreements, students agree to pay a percentage of their income for a set period after graduation. This tool is already employed at Purdue University, Lumni, Holberton schools, and 13th Avenue Funding. Team members cautioned that such programs would need to include protections to ensure that those typically discriminated against in the labor market, (women, first-generation students and minorities) don’t get inferior terms when embarking on these agreements.

“America is in the midst of a higher education financing crisis,” ETS President Walt MacDonald told conference attendees.  “And the longer it continues, the deeper it gets — and the more damage it does to individual lives, communities, and to the future of our country. As a former community college alumni, I am a great believer in the College Promise as a concept, and I am happy that we are attempting to figure out optimal funding models.”

Details and summaries of other approaches covered at the conference will be provided in the report planned for early next fall. For additional information, or to arrange an interview with Martha Kanter or Michael Nettles, contact Andra Armstrong at the College Promise Campaign at: 202-827-6720, or Thomas Ewing of ETS at: 609-683-2803. 


About College Promise Campaign

The mission of the College Promise Campaign is to build widespread support and broad public understanding for communities and states to fund, at a minimum, a community college education for all responsible students as a critical investment in America’s future.