Higher Education Groups Offer Recommendations to Strengthen College Promise Programs

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

As lawmakers and higher education stakeholders are publicly debating ways to make college more affordable, College Promise programs are becoming increasingly more popular; to date, more than 200 communities in 44 states have adopted such efforts to open the doors to higher education to more students. Three nonprofit higher education groups, however, warned in a policy brief this week that there is a flaw with the current state of Promise programs — while they focus on incentivizing people to attend college, they don’t do enough to ensure they stay long enough to earn a credential.

The groups, Complete College America, College Promise Campaign, and Achieving the Dream, wrote in their report, "Promise With a Purpose: College Promise Programs 'Built for Completion,'" that there are evidence-based measures that government and education leaders can implement to better these programs and improve outcomes for students.

"[T]he 'Promise' of a college degree or certificate is an empty one if newly accepted students don’t go on to complete their chosen credential," the groups wrote. "College Promise programs, then, must be ‘Built for Completion,’ matching the promise of college access with the promise of college graduation."

In order to increase graduation rates for Promise recipients, the groups argued that states and institutions with Promise programs must address the various barriers students face to completing degrees, such as "long sequences of non-credit remedial courses, enrollment patterns that don't translate into on-time completion, and limitless program options without clear pathways for students to follow."

For example, they suggested that institutions with Promise programs restructure their academic schedules to encourage students to take more credits each semester, such as by creating shorter terms with fewer courses in each. According to the groups, encouraging students to take more credits each year would set them on a pathway toward completion. They cited a Complete College America 2013 report that found that students taking less than 30 credits a year dropped out of school at a rate of 6 percent higher than those taking 30 or more credits.

The groups also recommended that institutions assign a counselor to each Promise program participant to encourage them to choose a course of study early in their college careers, and develop an academic plan for achieving a degree in that field. They referenced many institutions that saw success after instituting 'Guided Pathways' reforms, an effort growing in popularity in which colleges map out the programs they offer with the necessary courses and time to completion, as well as guide students through their program of choice. For example, after Florida State University created ‘degree maps,’ its graduation rate jumped by 12 percent.  

In addition to steps that institutions can take to increase students’ completion, the groups included measures that state and local leaders could adopt to support Promise students through graduation, such as collecting and reporting on graduation rates at institutions with Promise programs, and creating an appeals process in which students who do not complete their degrees due to unforeseen circumstances, such as an illness, can still receive funding.

The groups also urged lawmakers to develop a long-term plan to fund Promise programs. A report from The Century Foundation (TCF) in March warned that states’ disinvestments in higher education and low increases in funding may put such new initiatives at risk.

"The simple yet staggering truth is this: a high school education is no longer sufficient for advancement in the fast-growing, knowledge economy of the 21st century," the groups wrote. "... Our nation will need millions more well-prepared, career-ready graduates to increase and sustain our economic prosperity, and well-designed Promise programs are a dynamic tool to help us reach these goals."


Publication Date: 5/3/2018

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