As College Price Increases, Promise Programs Increase in Popularity

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

The price of college has continued to increase over the last several years, and prospective students and families are increasingly sensitive to the issue, looking for ways to make college more affordable. Over time, many states, cities, and communities have tried to address the issue by creating college promise programs, which when structured right can improve student outcomes.

In a new research brief published in the Midwestern Higher Education Compact, Robert Kelchen – an assistant professor at Seton Hall University – examines the structure and outcomes associated with several more established programs, and poses questions for policymakers to consider when developing and implementing new programs. Typically, these programs promise qualified students who meet certain requirements that all or part of their tuition and fees will be paid for by the state, city, or community running the program.

Research on three college promise programs – Indiana's 21st Century Scholars Program (created in 1990), the Kalamazoo Promise (created in 2005), and Missouri's A+ Program (created in 1993) – generally found that these types of programs can have a positive influence on college aspirations, enrollment rates, and persistence rates. The success can also be seen in the growth in promise programs – nearly 200 active programs exist today across 41 states.

However, the majority of promise programs that exist today are "last-dollar" programs, meaning the aid is only provided after other grants have been applied. While that can make them more financially sustainable in the long run, it can cause some problems for students. In order to be eligible for a last-dollar program, students would first have to file the FAFSA, which can be a challenging and confusing process for certain student groups. Additionally, the lowest-income students might not receive any additional aid from a last-dollar promise program because their tuition would likely be covered by other grants. This means many promise programs could actually be using their money to fund middle-income students.

"This does help a group of students who often get relatively little in financial aid to help pay for college, but these students and their families have a somewhat greater ability to finance a college education than lower-income students," Kelchen wrote. "Promise or tuition-free college programs may want to consider giving a small stipend to students whose tuition is already covered by federal or state financial aid sources to make sure that all students receive at least some money from the program and to help students afford books and living expenses — the largest portion of the cost of attendance for students attending public colleges."

Policymakers should also consider whether or how to include adult students in these programs, as most are typically geared toward middle school students or new high school graduates, and whether the programs should cover only two-year institutions, or four-year institutions as well, Kelchen wrote.

"College promise or tuition-free college programs are becoming a popular tool to help make college more affordable and to encourage local economic development," the brief said. "[I]f the financial resources and political will are both present, promise programs provide an opportunity to give families the confidence that college will be reasonably affordable in the future. Yet the design characteristics of these programs affect who is eligible to participate, who actually receives funds, and how financially sustainable the program will be in the long run."


Publication Date: 7/26/2017

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