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New College Promise Programs Heading Astray

A new analysis of existing and proposed College Promise programs has warned that the kinds of "policy design choices" made by policymakers will affect how well their Promise programs meet the goals they've set. In some states policymakers have begun to include requirements in their programs "to pursue objectives less directly related to the core goals of financial aid or college affordability measures." As a result, those states may not reach the people who most need the Promise help and their states may fail in closing gaps in enrollment and attainment rates for specific subgroups of students.

So suggested a report that examined 20 existing College Promise programs in 18 states. The analysis is intended to offer guidance to state and local political and education leaders considering the introduction of programs in their own states. The concept of the Promise program is to provide free or debt-free college to students who might otherwise not be able to afford post-secondary education.

Promise programs are far from universal, wrote Jen Mishory, a senior fellow at the progressive nonprofit Century Foundation, in "The Future of Statewide College Promise Programs: A State Guide to Free College." Eligibility requirements set by some states "limit the programs to just a small percentage of college students." For example, more than half of the programs require students to attend school full-time, which leaves out part-timers, who are more likely to be on their own financially. Nearly half work 40 or more hours each week, and almost 40 percent have dependents. As a result, she wrote, "many, if not most, non-traditional students are ineligible for their state's Promise programs unless their full aid package makes it realistic for them to attend full-time."

All but one of newer statewide Promise programs follow a last-dollar model, in which students are first required to use Pell dollars or other grant funds to cover the cost of tuition, with the Promise dollars covering any gap. If it were reversed, the report explained, low-income students could use the Promise dollars to pay for tuition and fees and the other funding to cover books, transportation, housing or other costs.

Merit-based Promise stipulations also limit the number of students who can qualify. Of the 16 programs considered in the report, half have a minimum grade point average and ACT or SAT requirement. Those, stated Mishory, "can have inequitable racial and socioeconomic impacts." Other requirements limit Promise coverage to specific degree or certificate programs deemed of strategic importance to the state.

For the 12 or more states that are considering adopting their own Promise programs in the current year, Mishory offered two pieces of advice:

  • Avoid adding layers of requirements that limit the help in unequal ways, such as merit stipulations and exclusion of non-traditional students; and
  • Keep the message simple, by leaving out post-college residency requirements, for instance, or adding confusing GPA standards; but do add funding for student support services.

The report is openly available through the Century Foundation website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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