Study Finds Connection Between Tuition-Free Programs at Two-Year Schools and Enrollment Increases

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Some tuition-free college programs, commonly referred to as college promise programs, are closely associated with an increase in enrollment, particularly among Black and Hispanic students, according to a new study.

With the programs growing in popularity across the country, researchers analyzed 33 college promise programs at 32 different two-year colleges to study the effects on enrollment of first-time, full-time college students.

The study found there was a 23% increase in enrollment at community colleges that offered promise programs compared to those without, with the biggest boosts among Black, Hispanic, and female students.

The findings come as the ongoing pandemic caused by the coronavirus has led to a downward trend in enrollment at higher education institutions, especially at two-year community colleges. While the study used a data set covering the 2000-01 to 2014-15 academic years, the authors say it underscores the benefit the programs can have, and could serve as evidence for policymakers and state legislators to protect and expand the programs.

“Prior to the pandemic, promise programs were an increasingly popular mechanism for enhancing college entry and postsecondary attainment,” Denisa Gándara, an assistant professor at Southern Methodist University and co-author of the study, said in a release. “Our study offers compelling evidence, and reinforces evidence from prior research, of the benefits of such programs in achieving college enrollment goals.”

Notably, the study found that how a tuition-free college program is designed leads to significantly varying outcomes. Programs with merit-based criteria, such as requiring a minimum grade point average, are associated with higher enrollment for white, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander female students.

Those with income requirements are negatively associated with enrollment of most demographic groups, according to the study. First-dollar programs, which award aid before a student applies other grants or aid to their college costs, were associated with increased enrollment of white students.

When broken down by demographics, the study found that community colleges with promise programs saw enrollment increase by 47% among Black males, 51% among Black females, 40% among Hispanic males, and 52% among Hispanic females.

“Together, these results suggest racially minoritized students, especially females, are more likely to enroll in Promise-eligible colleges. However, more generous programs are more likely to increase enrollments of White and Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander students,” the study stated.

Gandara noted that the study supported the notion that free college is about more than simply making college more affordable, saying messages associated with college promise programs, such as “college for all,” can have a positive impact on underrepresented student populations since they are “often subject to lower educational expectations from teachers and counselors and ... are more likely to perceive college as unaffordable.”

Amy Li, assistant professor of educational policy studies at Florida International University and co-author of the study, acknowledged the cuts to state higher education budgets in recent years, but noted the importance of continuing to fund these types of programs.

“Given such encouraging evidence of the effectiveness of community college promise programs on initial college enrollment, working to protect them should be among the top priorities of policymakers,” she said.

The study suggests future research expand the scope, taking a look at the impact promise programs have on enrollment at four-year institutions, as well as examining the impact the programs have on completion rates.

Curious about the ins and outs of free college programs? Take a look back at NASFAA’s three-part series examining the landscape of programs, funding mechanisms, and impact on financial aid offices.


Publication Date: 10/28/2020

Robert W | 11/8/2020 3:50:12 PM

I was disappointed no Mississippi schools were in the sample. The Tuition Guarantee Program has be in existence in Mississippi sine around 2008 or so.

Bob Walker

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