Financial, Eligibility Restrictions Could Dampen Effect of College Promise Programs

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

With a renewed focus on college affordability and student debt following heightened discussion around the idea of "free college" over the last few years, several states have enacted College Promise programs. But strict eligibility requirements and a lack of financial investment from states in the long run may hinder the effectiveness of the programs, leaving out students with the most need, according to a new report from The Century Foundation (TCF).

In the report, which was released this Tuesday, author Jen Mishory, a senior fellow at TCF, writes that 16 states now have at least one statewide Promise program—10 of which have been enacted since 2014 when Gov. Bill Haslam launched the Tennessee Promise program and helped spark a national interest in tuition-free and debt-free college. State Promise programs, for the purposes of the TCF report, are programs funded through state-controlled dollars that provide free or debt-free tuition to a certain population of students selected not primarily based on merit. Generally, Promise programs guarantee 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.

"These numbers make it clear that, after decades of decline in the percentage of state budgets going to higher education, Promise programs are becoming an increasingly common pathway for states to pursue urgently needed new—though frequently narrow—investments in higher education," Mishory wrote.

After the creation of the Tennessee Promise program, support for tuition-free and debt-free proposals continued to grow as President Barack Obama announced the America's College Promise plan in 2015, and 2016 presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Hillary Clinton developed proposals of their own.

Although the push for a national program fizzled following the 2016 election, many states, cities, and other organizations have taken up the effort themselves. NASFAA's Assessing Tuition- and Debt-Free Higher Education Task Force wrote in its January 2017 report that "the proliferation of state and local college promise programs may well be the next wave of innovation and could pave the way for a national program in the future."

According to the College Promise Campaign, there are more than 200 Promise programs in various forms in 43 states across the country. That's up from 150 programs across 37 states as of October 2016.

Despite the mounting support behind the idea, states have not yet restored their funding for higher education in general, let alone allocated new funding to keep Promise programs up and running for years to come. In fact, increases in state funding for higher education between fiscal years 2016-17 and 2017-18 were the lowest in five years, according to the annual "Grapevine" survey, conducted by the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University and the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO).

With more than a dozen other states expected to consider Promise program proposals in 2018, Mishory emphasized the importance of allocating the funds to move toward making the Promise programs a universal benefit.

"Without that investment, as states launch programs with rationing policies to contain program costs, the choices they make will have very different impacts on who benefits, how well it measures up against the goals of spurring enrollment and lowering debt, and how their program impacts the progress their state makes in closing gaps in enrollment and attainment rates by race and income," she wrote.

On top of the financial barriers, Mishory argued, some eligibility requirements tied to Promise programs could exclude students with significant need, potentially misdirect the funds toward wealthier students, or create other access issues. Simply limiting the program to community colleges, for example, might encourage "undermatching," according to one study Mishory cited in the report. Requiring scholarship recipients to enroll full-time would overlook part-time students—a population that is more likely to be financially independent and "shouldering a larger share" of the cost, according to the report. And restricting eligibility to recent high school graduates would eliminate non-traditional students from the equation.

Attending full-time is typically associated with improved student outcomes, but the state Promise programs that exist today don't provide a level of funding that would allow these students to pay their bills, work less, and go to school full-time.

"The combined effect of these two limitations mean that 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," Mishory wrote.

Many Promise programs are also structured as "last-dollar" programs, meaning the scholarship students receive comes after Pell Grants and other grant aid is taken into account to cover any gaps in paying tuition. "First-dollar" programs would allow students to use other grant aid to cover additional expenses, such as housing, textbooks, transportation, and other costs.

"Paying for living costs is likely to pose a bigger barrier to college access and reducing debt for a low-income student than paying for tuition costs might pose for wealthy students," the report said.

Other eligibility requirements that can have unintended consequences include merit requirements, such as maintaining a minimum GPA or ACT/SAT score, a lack of an income cap, a post-graduation residency requirement, or limiting the scope of the program based on field.

The report also outlined a series of recommendations as more states move forward considering Promise program proposals. Because states have limited resources, Mishory wrote, they should target funds toward the neediest students by structuring the programs with a first-dollar approach. Income caps or "middle-dollar" approaches would be better ways to limit who qualifies and keep costs down than merit requirements, she wrote.

Mishory also recommended scrapping or adjusting other eligibility requirements that would exclude nontraditional students, such as prorating the scholarships for part-time students, including undocumented students, and eliminating post-graduation residency requirements.

"As debates around Promise programs continue, state legislators serious about spurring enrollment, lowering debt, and addressing inequities in our higher education system should ensure that proposed Promise programs provide both a clear message and a clear benefit to those who need it most," Mishory wrote. "Doing so may also require a more serious conversation about revenue: while Promise programs may be free for students, building a more equitable, evidence-driven program will require a bolder investment from states—and would benefit significantly from an enhanced partnership with the federal government as well."


Publication Date: 3/8/2018

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