Promise Programs: How Free College Went Mainstream

By Andy Liu (HMC ’23)

During the ongoing 2020 Democratic primaries, many candidates have proposed varying levels of tuition-free public college, ranging from moderate proposals involving free community college, some level of student loan forgiveness, or the complete elimination of tuition and fees at all public colleges. Yet, while these plans have come under fire from conservative commentators for their unfeasibility, free college may be closer than you think. Free public college and full student loan forgiveness enjoy relatively high support from the electorate – with recent polls indicating 58% support for the policy, including a relatively high 40% of Republican respondents. More importantly, however, many cities and states have already implemented some version of free college, usually “promise” or “last dollar” programs that fully cover tuition costs for certain colleges. As free college gains more and more momentum as a national issue, it is important to understand the evolution of such programs, and how their design and implementation could be applicable to national policy.

While free college programs in America date back as far as the 1990s with Indiana’s 21st Century Scholarship, community promise programs (community programs providing free or debt-free tuition to a significant subset of students not primarily selected off of merit) only became popular after the Michigan city of Kalamazoo implemented the “Kalamazoo Promise”, offering Kalamazoo Public School students the opportunity to attend college tuition-free at any in-state public college. Most notably, this was given to all Kalamazoo Public School students, without any additional academic, economic, or disciplinary considerations. Additionally, this was a “first dollar” program, meaning that scholarship dollars were applied to the tuition bill before any federal or state grant aid, which students could then use to cover any remaining student fees. 

However, although Kalamazoo’s program inspired communities across the nation to adopt their own promise programs, the increase in adoption was made possible due to a decrease in these new programs’ financial impact on individual students. Today, 75% of community-run promise programs are “last dollar” programs, which only apply scholarship dollars to the remaining tuition bill after grants are applied, resulting in higher costs for lower-income students. Additionally, they tend to implement additional restrictions on who can receive the money, typically involving academics. As a result, while the Kalamazoo Promise has had positive impacts (of up to a 10% increase) on college enrollment, newer promise programs with additional restrictions have had more mixed results, and often shift enrollment toward public universities rather than increasing total enrollment. Still, though, over 350 communities, including larger cities such as Pittsburgh and Chicago, have adopted such programs in recent years, increasing college affordability nationwide. 

At the state level, sixteen states have enacted promise programs, usually covering tuition costs for community or two-year public colleges, and New York made waves in 2017 by making two- and four-year public college free for qualifying residents through its Excelsior Scholarship. Such programs have been enacted in both Democrat-controlled and Republican-controlled state legislatures, and many of them have been very recently adopted, indicating a growing trend towards more statewide programs. In order to fund such programs, states have often found creative methods of generating more revenue. In order to generate one billion dollars needed to fund its promise program over four years, Washington created a surcharge on businesses that depend on higher education for fields such as accounting or engineering, creating a dedicated revenue stream. Meanwhile, Tennessee funded its own program, which costs thirty million dollars per year, from taking funds from the state lottery, while other programs have relied on private donations or a combination of state and private funds. 

Although these programs are relatively young, they have shown effectiveness at increasing enrollment, with studies showing modest increases in college enrollment as a result of these programs. However, the bulk of these state programs are last-dollar programs that often leave their neediest recipients saddled with high housing costs and other non-tuition fees. Additionally, these programs tend to impose relatively strict eligibility requirements regarding academics and full-time enrollment. While this is used to control program costs, it often leads to inequity in who receives scholarships, especially hurting adult or nontraditional students. As a result, many programs have come under fire for failing to adequately support students that are most in need of support. Interestingly enough, these progressive arguments have been echoed by the moderate wing of the Democratic party during its primaries, with candidates such as Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar characterizing more ambitious free college policies as primarily benefiting wealthier families who don’t necessarily need them.

Policy proposals from Democratic presidential candidates have indicated growing national momentum toward national free college proposals. This energy has been reflected in local and state legislative activity, with many communities and states already creating “Promise Programs” that cover tuition costs for qualifying students attending certain public colleges. However, while many of these programs have seen success and bolstered the feasibility of national free college policies, others have seen mixed results and faced criticism due to a lack of equity. It is undeniable that free college has a lot of momentum both nationally and locally, and a Democratic victory in the 2020 election could drastically accelerate the creation of such programs at all levels of government. When considering future promise programs at all levels of government, however, lawmakers can learn valuable lessons from the hundreds of existing programs and how differences in implementation in their funding mechanisms, eligibility requirements, and scholarship delivery methods can impact their effectiveness.

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