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Creating 'Promise Neighborhoods': Where Are the Universities?

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When Barack Obama was on the campaign trail in 2008, one of his promises for helping America’s young people was to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone, a massive effort to bring health, social-service, and educational resources to bear on the issue of poverty in a 97-block area of Central Harlem, in New York City.

The Obama administration was not quick to fund and implement this effort, however, and educators and activists have watched as the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation (i3) initiatives received faster launches from the U.S. Department of Education, and far more funding.

Yet just when it looked as if children’s-zone founder Geoffrey Canada’s dream might be dead at the national level, the Education Department began seeking proposals in late April for up to 20 planning grants to develop new "promise neighborhoods" addressing youth and family needs, from birth to age 21. ("Department Spells Out Rules for Promise Neighborhoods," April 30, 2010.) These relatively small grants will support efforts to study and pull together plans for such an undertaking. A later competition, with more money involved, would then supply funding for implementation grants.

In less than a month, 941 organizations filed statements of intent to enter the planning-grant competition, indicating a highly competitive race for a very limited number of awards. (The final number and list of applicants are still to be released following the June 28 deadline, but Education Department estimates show at least 339 organizations participating.) Applicants could be nonprofit agencies, or institutions of higher education, working in concert with local school districts, other community groups, and local government.

But who filed statements of intent? Did colleges and universities join the field, to champion blighted neighborhoods in the cities or rural areas where they are based?

A look at the list of filers would indicate not. While institutions of higher education would seem to be the perfect applicants for these grants, given the range of resources needed to do this sort of work, it appears that many colleges and universities, even those with some commitment to their communities, decided to sit this one out.

Of the 900-plus organizations that filed statements, more than 800 were either public school districts or local organizations. This should come as no surprise, as local residents and their organizations have a real stake in turning around their communities. And the sight of new money, any new money, for community development would bring serious interest and enthusiasm.

But there were differences in the makeup of the statements. Programs to help Native American communities, for example, were one area in which 31 percent of filers were colleges or universities, some of them tribal institutions, but many not. It would seem then that at least when it comes to issues involving Native Americans, colleges and universities seem as likely to step forward as other community groups.

Their percentage dips, though, when we look at filers focused on rural areas generally, a high priority of the planning-grant competition. Here, colleges and universities made up only 12 percent of the field. In the poorer areas of rural America, universities, extension agencies, and branch campuses can serve as well-funded institutional sources for community-development activities similar to those that make up a promise neighborhood. But relatively few universities stepped forward in this area.

It is when we look at programs focused on urban America, though, that colleges and universities seem inexplicably to recede from the picture. Among the more than 700 statements of intent in the urban competition, fewer than 100 came from institutions of higher education, the rest coming from community organizations, local schools, and nonprofits. Across the categories, colleges and universities (including community colleges) accounted for only 11 percent of this filing group, with public school systems, local nonprofits, and other local groups filling the role one might have expected higher education to take up. Over the whole planning-grant competition, only 12 percent of the intents-to-apply were from institutions of higher education.

It might be that taking on a project like this, with a short timetable and a small chance of success, might not appeal to many colleges and universities. But given the struggling economy in many urban areas, and the impact this poverty can have on the community, it is hard to see why more of these institutions did not seem poised to take leadership roles in this undertaking.

It is also hard to imagine a better source of “promise” for neighborhoods than institutions of higher education—whether they are community colleges, four-year regional institutions, or research universities. The vast majority of parents living in distressed areas view college as an important goal for their children and see education as a necessity in this new century.

While building “promise neighborhoods” might not be on every college and university agenda, and while presidents and provosts may have many pressing concerns competing for their time and energy, I would argue that nothing is of higher importance than the effort they put into building ties with their local communities, developing plans to help K-12 education and serve local youths, and improving the viability of their surrounding neighborhoods.

If higher education does not take a central role in bringing promise and hope to people who need it, other groups that may lack the resources needed to do the task well will take up that challenge instead. Wouldn’t it be better if they worked together?

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