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Volume 4, Issue 8

Free Tuition or Not, a Fundraiser's Job Remains the Same

Even if students could attend community college for free—as President Obama proposed last month—chief fundraisers at two institutions whose students already benefit from local free-tuition programs say their jobs wouldn't change significantly.

In 2001, Stephen Doherty came to Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Michigan as director of development. In 2005, an anonymous group of local philanthropists founded The Kalamazoo Promise—a program that pays up to 100 percent tuition at any of Michigan's state colleges or universities for graduates of Kalamazoo Public Schools who meet certain standards. The program has since garnered national attention and inspired the creation of similar programs throughout the country.

Still, Doherty says his institution's fundraising operations don't look that much different today than they did prior to the introduction of The Kalamazoo Promise. He notes that only about 4.5 percent or 500 students at Kalamazoo Valley have their tuition covered by the program. The college's service area includes many of the counties surrounding Kalamazoo whose students are not eligible for the program.

Given this, Doherty notes that student scholarships still remain the primary fundraising priority for his institution where about half of the student population receives some sort of financial aid.

"If this program the president talks about were to happen—and I can look back on the many Kalamazoo Promise students who've had free tuition—we still have other costs to cover including textbooks, transportation, housing and childcare," he says. "We still need to fundraise for scholarships to cover those areas. Also, we've faculty and equipment and facilities to think about. Our job as fundraisers isn't going to get easier, and it isn't going to go away. The focus just may be a little different."

Rose Ann DiCola, executive director of the Community College of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, has had a similar experience to Doherty's since the introduction of The Pittsburgh Promise in 2008. Although she notes that her institution enrolls more Pittsburgh Promise students than any other institution, most of the student population comes from outside of the city of Pittsburgh, whose public school graduates are the only ones eligible for the program.

Still, DiCola notes the popularity of and media coverage of The Pittsburgh Promise inspired a major donor to fund The High School to Career Scholarships in 2009—a similar program for graduates of high schools in the suburbs outside of Pittsburgh solely to attend the Community College of Allegheny County.

DiCola and Doherty note that their institutions have seen an influx of students benefiting from these free-tuition programs who are in need of remediation to become ready to take college-level courses and earn credit toward a degree.

"Some of the Promise students need a little extra," DiCola says. "Over time, we have found it beneficial to augment our support services for students with success coaches, tutoring, math cafés, learning commons, etc. Funders are not always interested in supporting college-ready programs, but we've had some success."

DiCola and Doherty agree that the success of the free-tuition programs has benefitted their institutions—financially and otherwise—and raised the profile of their own fundraising initiatives at their institutions. Whether the programs have increased or decreased donations to colleges, however, remains to be seen, they say, although both acknowledge that their institution's donor pool overlaps with that of the Promise programs.

To continue the conversation on the issue of free-tuition programs—including President Obama's plan—and their impact on community college advancement, check out the CASE networking community for community college advancement professionals.

This article is from the February 2015 issue of the Community College Advancement News.

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