The Promise of College: Opening New Pathways to the American Dream

Our democracy was built on the belief that education would drive our collective economic,social, and civic responsibility and prosperity—that it was a public good. A century ago, we as a nation made high school education our minimum standard. Times have changed. Today, a high school education is not enough to lead Americans to a good job and a decent quality of life.1 Education beyond high school is critical for success in our global economy, for our social fabric, and for our personal and collective well-being. Every student should have the opportunity to attain an affordable quality college education, regardless of income, race, ethnicity, geography, or background, but rising college costs have placed higher education out of reach for too many of today’s students and burdened others with often insurmountable amounts of debt.2

One solution to this problem that has found traction locally—and increasingly statewide—is the development of College Promise programs. These place-based initiatives aim to promote a college-going culture, increase access to higher education, and improve student and postsecondary outcomes by removing the barrier of college tuition and fees while providing academic, student, and community supports that enable students to flourish in college, in work, and in the rest of their lives.

A College Promise is a commitment to fund a college education for every eligible hardworking student advancing on the path to earn a college degree, a certificate, and/or credits that transfer to a four-year university. A College Promise is a public assurance to prepare students for the twenty-first century workforce and the pursuit of the American dream without the burden of unmanageable college debt. A College Promise is also a trust to make the first two years of college—at minimum—as universal, free, and accessible as public high school has been since the twentieth century.

Local resonance

The College Promise Campaign (CPC) was launched on September 9, 2015, at Macomb Community College in Michigan by President Barack H. Obama, Second Lady of the United States Jill Biden, and the thirtieth governor of Wyoming (1995–2003), Jim Geringer. The CPC’s mission is to increase the social, economic, and civic mobility of students by advancing College Promise programs in communities and states across the nation, starting in America’s community colleges. The CPC’s work falls into three main categories: building widespread public awareness; tracking, collecting, and promoting Promise research, high-impact practices, and policy solutions; and encouraging cross-sector Promise leaders to establish new programs or make innovative and evidence-based improvements to existing Promises. At its founding, the CPC identified fifty-three Promise programs nationwide. Today, it is tracking more than three hundred local programs and twenty-nine statewide Promise initiatives actively serving millions of students across the United States.

The explosive growth of the movement speaks to a widespread recognition of the need for improved access to and success in higher education, but perhaps the most unique aspect of College Promise programs is how strongly their message has resonated in local communities. Education, business, philanthropic, and government leaders have joined together with students and families to develop and sustain their Promise programs. Local Promise programs offer students place-based scholarships, meaning they serve specific geographic or institutional areas. They are designed and implemented by drawing on the community’s available resources and keeping particular student needs in mind. As a result, College Promise programs differ community to community in terms of funding sources, service area, and the type or amount of support offered. Local Promise programs across the country have developed many unique solutions to help their students:

  • utilizing public, private, or mixed funding streams
  • providing scholarships that are first dollar (upfront cost of tuition), last dollar (remaining cost of tuition after federal/state funding applied), or last dollar plus (adding a first-dollar bonus)
  • covering tuition for specific colleges, or enabling students to take their scholarship anywhere in the country
  • providing mentors, tailored wraparound student supports, and/or intrusive advising to accelerate progression to and through college and career
  • offering guided pathways, community service opportunities, job-shadowing, and/or paid internships

Wraparound supports

While College Promise programs vary across the country, most share a few common features. First, Promise programs have an explicit policy to engage students, institutions, policymakers, and the public on the importance of postsecondary education. Second, Promise stakeholders send a clear message that college is attainable for every eligible hardworking student advancing on the path to earn a college degree, a certificate, and/or credits that transfer to a four-year university. Third, in addition to providing the financial award and stakeholder framework for postsecondary education, quality Promise programs acknowledge that additional support services are critical to improving college outcomes and student success.

College Promise Programs

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As College Promise programs have become more widely accepted and embraced, the third feature of wraparound support services has become a key focus of Promise administrators and the CPC. Removing tuition as a barrier of entry for higher education is a crucial first step to expanding education access, but alone, this step is frequently not enough. The students helped by Promise programs often come from traditionally underserved populations struggling with barriers beyond tuition.3 Many of these students are able to enroll in college thanks to tuition-free options but then still struggle with the full cost of attendance, which includes expenses for housing, childcare, food, transportation, and books. Some students aided by Promise never expected to be able to afford higher education and lack the knowledge or social supports necessary to navigate the college experience. In order for a Promise to truly benefit students, a program must go beyond simply allowing students to attend college—it must give them the tools and supports to persist, achieve, and graduate.

By actively assessing the needs of their Promise students, programs now more than ever are investing in the specific supports that will benefit the students in their community. A range of College Promise programs offer book and/or transportation stipends to supplement the Promise, and some provide a level of housing benefit. The Campaign has now identified programs that have invested in developing food banks or drop-in childcare access on campus. The Detroit Promise has established a robust network of volunteer mentors who use a series of proactive and high-touch interactions, such as scheduled in-person check-ins and regular text message exchanges, to guide students through the transition to college and help them stay on track once enrolled.4  Frequent meetings with their mentors, monthly financial incentives, text messaging, and schedule management are several features to help students navigate the college experience. The Tennessee Promise has an entire independent network of supports made possible through its independent nonprofit, TN Achieves, which works with students to help them access the full breadth of services from the statewide Tennessee Promise.5 Some well-designed programs are utilizing support services that extend deeply into the K–12 system (early messaging, integrated college savings accounts, summer bridge programs, counseling and mentorship programs before and through college enrollment) and up through job placement (career counseling, job shadowing, internship opportunities, industry exposure).

To support local and state innovations taking wraparound support services to the next level, the CPC is identifying the specific “ecosystem” of supports needed by particular subsets of students to progress to, through, and beyond college. The CPC and the nonprofit ETS partnered on the College Promise Ecosystems project with the support of philanthropy, bringing together higher education scholars, practitioners, and finance experts to identify practical solutions to better support specific student populations (disconnected adults, veterans, DREAMers, traditional college-age youth). By conducting intensive focus groups and reviewing current practices that have been shown to benefit different student populations, the CPC supports Promise programs to provide evidence-based targeted services to improve retention and graduation rates. Examples include establishing cohorts of Promise students, promoting guided pathways, providing mentors, and offering specialized counseling and financial aid advising, to name a few.

State participation

While the flexibility and variability of College Promises are certainly a strength that enables local and statewide Promise programs to better meet student needs, comparing Promise programs and supporting research that is applicable to the movement as a whole is a continuing challenge. In the past few years, the CPC has increasingly focused on identifying and disseminating high-quality, high-impact Promise features, but oftentimes Promise research and findings have been highly localized and case specific.6

In order to streamline and collect research efforts, as well as help identify general best practices, in 2019 the CPC launched the College Promise Research Network (CPRN). The CPRN consists of a steering committee and a series of working groups built around major topics of Promise research, all composed of researchers actively engaged in studying local and state Promise programs. The goal is to identify gaps in current Promise literature, facilitate national collaboration for prospective or ongoing Promise research, and distinguish the most effective high-impact practices to be widely shared among Promise researchers and practitioners alike. So far, the CPRN has documented an extensive bibliography of more than 150 Promise research studies and gathered researchers across the country into four working groups: Workforce/Economic, Financial Sustainability, Program Design, and Metrics and Evaluation. Looking ahead, the CPC will develop a robust system of communications to share research findings with the larger Promise community and its partner institutions and organizations for continuous program improvement from research to practice based on evidence garnered by the growing number of Promise scholars from across the nation.

Perhaps the most exciting new frontier for the College Promise movement is the intense interest we are now seeing at the state level.7 At the start of 2020, there were twenty-nine statewide Promise initiatives, all differing dramatically in structure and implementation but all affirming a commitment to expanding access to and success through higher education, reducing the barriers of tuition and fees, and bolstering critical student supports. Some states directly structure and design their own programs, determining eligible students, K–12 schools, community colleges, universities, and programs of study for their College Promise. Others, such as California, choose to instead provide a general funding stream to enable the College Promise to grow, allowing local colleges and universities to then tailor programs to student needs.8 Many state programs, like Kentucky’s Work Ready Scholarship Program, focus on the economic benefits of a Promise and target specific high-demand workforce programs geared toward certain industries or underemployed populations. Others, such as the Washington Promise, approach Promise with an equity lens and structure their programs to act as expansions of existing state need grants.

The growth of statewide Promises is a testament to the innovation, success, and significance of local programs. Although the scope and scale of a statewide Promise might overshadow the capabilities and outcomes of local Promises, community-based initiatives provide an unmatched level of flexibility and a much deeper understanding of how to meet student needs.9 As states continue participating in Promise programs, it will be increasingly important to identify the best ways for state and local Promises to interact. At worst, a system with little communication between state and local Promises will duplicate efforts. At its best, effective state and local partnerships can dramatically increase the impact of Promises and successfully serve the students who can most benefit from Promise resources. Certainly, the federal-state partnership envisioned years ago in America’s College Promise, which is increasingly in the public discourse, may well be on the horizon in the years ahead and could add value and sustainability to local and state Promise programs if properly designed and implemented.10

A promising future

The CPC strongly values communication between and among local programs and states. While all programs are unique, many regions share particular challenges, and communities often find inspiration in and opportunities to learn from the successes and challenges of their neighbors. With this in mind, the CPC helps foster regional coalitions to identify, share, and address concerns; celebrate and promote local triumphs; and encourage positive regional growth. Over the past two years, several Promise coalitions have formed in California, Texas, and Michigan, doubling down on the exciting momentum in these regions. Moving forward, the CPC aims to foster and support further coalitions across the United States to create self-reinforcing communities of practice to grow the Promise movement.

The College Promise movement’s early results demonstrate increases in progression, equity, and achievement outcomes in well-designed, independently evaluated Promise programs. The CPC has several major projects in design to support the movement going forward, including an updated financial sustainability assessment and series of financial sustainability guidelines for Promise programs; a value impact profile that offers students, families, researchers, and policy leaders the opportunity to locate and compare Promise programs and provides general guidelines for improving overall program impact; and an expansion of the Promise Ecosystems work to include more subpopulations of students. The CPC will continue to serve as the College Promise movement’s national clearinghouse and systems integrator, supporting the growth and quality of individual local and statewide Promise programs while connecting Promise leaders and stakeholders from education, government, business, philanthropy, and other sectors to beneficial Promise resources.

Education has never been more important for social success and for the future of our democracy. While the dream of a freely available college education might have been unimaginable only a decade ago, today it is already a reality for hundreds of thousands of students. By growing, supporting, and improving our local and state College Promise programs in the years ahead, we will do all we can to move our nation toward a better educated, more inclusive, more just, and more prosperous America. 

Connect with Us

Sign up for the CPC’s mailing list and keep in touch with us at collegepromise.org. You can also keep up on the latest news in the College Promise world through our updates on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Notes

  1. Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl, Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2020 (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2013).
  2. Laura W. Perna and Edward J. Smith, eds., Improving Research-Based Knowledge of College Promise Programs (Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association, 2020).
  3. Laura W. Perna, Delivering on the Promise: Structuring College Promise Programs to Promote Higher Education Attainment for Students from Underserved Groups, Penn Alliance for Education and Democracy, October 2016, https://www.ahead-penn.org/sites/default/files/u2/Delivering_On_the_Prom....
  4. Alyssa Ratledge, Enhancing Promise Programs to Improve College Access and Success, MDRC, 2017, https://www.mdrc.org/sites/default/files/DetroitPromisePath-IssueFocus.pdf.
  5. Celeste K. Carruthers and William F. Fox, “Aid for All: College Coaching, Financial Aid, and Post-Secondary Persistence in Tennessee,” Economics of Education Review 51, issue C (2016): 97–112.
  6. Michelle Miller-Adams and Brad J. Hershbein, “Learning from a Decade of College Promise Scholarships,” W.E. Upjohn Institute of Employment Research, October 26, 2017, http://research.upjohn.org/presentations/49/.
  7. Laura W. Perna, Elaine W. Leigh, and Stephanie Carroll, “Free College: A New and Improved State Approach to Increasing Educational Attainment?” American Behavioral Scientist 61, no. 14 (December 2017): 1740–56.
  8. Mary Rauner, The College Promise in California: A Collection of Program Profiles, WestEd, 2016, https://www.wested.org/resources/college-promise-california/.
  9. Michelle Miller-Adams, The Kalamazoo Promise and the Diffusion of a Private Policy Innovation, paper presented at Midwest Political Science Association Conference, Chicago, IL, April 2009.
  10. G. William Hoagland, Shai Akabas, Kenneth Megan, Jinann Bitar, Kody Carmody, Elizabeth Middleton, and Mariette Aborn, A New Course for Higher Education: Strengthening Access, Affordability, and Accountability (Washington, DC: Bipartisan Policy Center, January 29, 2020), https://bipartisanpolicy.org/report/new-higher-ed/.

Martha Kanter is executive director of College Promise and served as US under secretary of education in the Obama administration. Anjana Venkatesan is College Promise senior policy and research advisor.

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