The Syracuse Promise

Free College Tuition For Syracuse High School Graduates: as an economic stimulus and a means to significantly improve city schools average test scores. (A letter to the mayor of Syracuse, NY.)

September 7, 2006

Dear Mayor Driscoll:

I recently read that Kalamazoo, MI has intiated the Kalamazoo Promise program, offering free tuition at Michigan state colleges and universities to Kalamazoo city high school graduates beginning in the 2006 academic year. Private anonymous donations are funding the program. The coverage is actually 65-100%, depending on years of residency. Students apply for all the usual grants, and the program cover the difference. Coverage is for tuition and fees. Of course, students must still qualify academically for whichever school they wish to attend. Kalamazoo has 75,000 residents, and 65 students joined the program in the fall of 2006, the first year. The Kalamazoo Promise website:

I wondered if Syracuse could benefit by making the same offer, the Syracuse Promise. Following is some back-of-napkin accounting. Syracuse has roughly 144,000 residents, suggesting that 125 students a year would join the program (using Kalamazoo's ratio). New York State college tuition and fees cost roughly $6,000 per year, so the program would cost $750,000 per year per class, and $3,000,000 per year in full cycle (4 years). Existing grant programs would defray a significant part of this cost. Of course the number of students may rise over time.

What are the likely effects of such a program on Syracuse?:

  • The program would profoundly encourage people to move into Syracuse from the suburbs and even from areas out of state. This would help to infill the roughly 8,000-9,000 vacant households in Syracuse, and stimulate new residential construction or remodeling. In Kalamazoo, construction projects increased from $0 to $10M within 45 days of the Kalamazoo Promise announcement.
  • It would likely boost city schools average test scores significantly as many under-priviledged students would now see a real opportunity of college and better jobs by doing well in school. Of course, the parents of such students would see this as well. A powerful sense of opportunity would arise in discussions within neighborhood groups and churches, helping to focus students and parents on school.
  • It would be a big selling point for Syracuse both to businesses and families considering moving here. The higher city school test scores--and presumably higher quality education due to more focused students--would be as strong a selling point as the tuition benefit. Even students expecting to go to private university (or not at all) would benefit from a more focused student population.
  • Locally, OCC and ESF could see a nice uptick in enrollment, helping to retain local students in the area through their college years.
  • Student graduates of the program would be more likely to stay in Syracuse which served them so well. The whole community would gain greater stability and stronger roots.
  • SU might also be coaxed into participating in whatever way it deemed appropriate. It would be enough if SU offered discounted tuition equal to state colleges tuition. It would be fine if its offer extended to only the most financially needy students (so as not to undermine its existing revenue base). An act of generosity and community-building toward the city.
  • A rising average education level of residents will lead to a rising average household income, boosting the local economy.
  • Syracuse would gain considerable national media attention, as Kalamazoo recently has.

How would the program be financed? Some things to consider:

  • The $3M per year cost of the program is roughly 1% of the $262M city school budget. Would the city schools spend 1% of their budget on a program they were confident would significantly increase student academic performance?
  • Our elected representatives could probably drum up a few million dollars for this. They find tens of millions of dollars per year for an assortment of economic development projects. The Syracuse Promise would also be an economic development project, and would likely have a far greater economic impact for the money then traditional development projects.
  • Local businesses, the MDA, and other business groups could be solicited for funds. It would be a high return on investment for them as well.
  • Syracuse University could sponsor its own participation very effectively with in-kind contribution. It's out-of-pocket marginal costs should be much less than $1M per year. It could also cap the number of students accepted, if necessary.

A $3M per year investment for such a project seems like a bargain, considering the likely benefits. Part of the reason the cost seems modest is because many college-bound students will choose private or out-of-state colleges. However, a truly successful program may, after several years, lead to 4-5 times as many students taking the offer. But that would be wonderful, and the best $12M-$15M per year spent on education. The city school district could save that much in expenses simply by having more focused students (and use the savings to fund the program). In any case, traditional education grants would defray a good portion of the cost.

How can we calculate the project's economic impact in numbers? Here's a scenario and rough calculation of some of the direct stimulus the program could generate. There is surely more to add to this:

  • If the program causes 1000 families with 1500 children to move into Syracuse, the city would receive from the state and local taxes roughly $13,000 for each new student (based on $262M budget divided by 20,000 students), or $19.5M per year ($13,000x1500 students) in school related taxes. That inflow of money alone would create roughly 400 new jobs.
  • 1000 households will spend roughly $10,000/yr per household in taxable purchases, generating $10M in direct economic activity and $800K in sales taxes. About 1/2 of that expenditure would be local ``value add'', leading to another 100 jobs or so.
  • These households will spend another roughly $35,000 each ($35M) on other goods and services, for an additional local ``value add'' of perhaps $20M, leading to another 400 jobs.
  • Some of the new residents will have their own business and will bring their own employment as well as employment for others.
  • Over the long-run more highly educated Syracuse natives will send back more money or will stay here and cause the average household spending in Syracuse to rise. Property values will rise, properties will be improved, the tax base will rise, and the quality of schools will improve. All will greatly enhance Syracuse as a desirable place to live, which will also draw the wealthier households that have tended to move to the suburbs.

Well, that's the idea. I think the program could be justified just as a means to substantially increase the average performance of Syracuse schools. But it can also be justified as an economic development program to attract new residents. Also, a stronger and more highly regarded school system (the program would get a lot of publicity) would help paint Syracuse in a new light. Perhaps the beginning of something more.

I pass this along to you in the hope you might find it useful in some way. If you think the idea may be feasible and would like to discuss it further, I will be happy to oblige.


Carlo Moneti