What are ‘Promise Programs’ and how can they help make college more affordable?

U.S. student loan debt totaled more than $1.7 trillion dollars in 2021. And while President Biden’s recently announced student loan payment extension helps relieve some of the pressure for some of those borrowers, it doesn’t address making secondary education more affordable in the first place.

Some programs do exist, however, to make higher education affordable. More than a dozen states and multiple cities and counties subscribe to initiatives called ‘Promise Programs.’ They vary in design – some have merit or income requirements, while others provide stipends for books and other expenses. But, in general, Promise Programs offer recent, local high school graduates tuition-free college for institutions in a specific geographic area.

Researchers have been studying these program’s’ outcomes since the first one started in 2007 in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Here are some of their findings on how promise programs affect enrollment and their respective communities.

Tuition-free college boosts enrollment for some marginalized communities.

A study published by the American Education Research Association in 2020 analyzed 33 Promise programs that provided tuition benefits to local 2-year colleges. Colleges with Promise programs saw the greatest enrollment increases in Black and other minority groups.

First time, initial enrollment increased 47% for Black men and 51% for Black women. Enrollment of Hispanic males and females jumped 40% and 52%, respectively, according to the study.

Promise programs also reduce the amount of student loans taken out. A study done on the state-wide Tennessee Promise program found that borrowing for first-time, full time community college students was reduced by over 40%, and the loans that were taken out were up to $360 less than they were before implementing the program.

“These free college programs that are designed to only cover up to the kind of charges that you see on your bill, like your tuition and mandatory fee charges. They are helpful for students, but sometimes those may only represent 50% or even less of the total cost that it takes for a student, and by extension – their family, to enroll in college,” said Taylor Odle, educational policy researcher out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“This data tells us that promise took care of a big chunk of a student’s bill. But because so many students in Tennessee are promise-eligible, some of them are still taking out student loans. And it’s by definition, to cover what promise is not covering. So, we’ve come a long way, but we didn’t completely eliminate the need to borrow.”

Black graduates on average owe $25,000 more in student loan debt than white graduates. So as promise programs boost enrollment for Black and other minority students, it’s also reducing the need for loans, allowing groups systematically affected more by student loan debt to become less debt dependent while pursuing higher education.

Promise programs make communities more attractive.

The presence of a Promise Program has been shown to make an area more appealing, especially when residency or enrollment in local school districts are eligibility factors.

“We’ve also found recently with the Kalamazoo Promise that students who received tuition-free college were more likely to remain in or come back to the Kalamazoo region than students that did not experience the Kalamazoo Promise,” said Michelle Miller-Adams who researches tuition-free college programs at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

In fact, a 2015 study done by her colleagues at the Upjohn Institute found a decrease in out-migration in eight communities with Promise Programs, leading to a population that was 1.7 percent bigger than it would have been without the free-tuition incentive.

But, there are criticisms of the promise programs.

Community college completion rates are lower than 4-year institutions.

A study done by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University found that 80 percent of incoming community college students intend to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree. But only about 25 percent of students actually transfer to a 4-year institution and 17 percent go on to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Critics of promise programs are concerned that these programs are diverting 4-year eligible students into the community college pathway which statistically means they’re less likely to complete a degree. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center published a study that showed that 68 percent of students who started at a public 4-year institution completed a degree, while about 43 percent of students who started at a community college completed a 2-year or 4-year degree.

“A huge percentage of people at community colleges are adults. They have jobs, they have families. There are a lot of things that get in the way of really focusing on your college success. So more support and a very easy message about this being affordable and tuition-free can really help with those community college outcomes.” Miller-Adams said.

Middle to high-income students benefit the most.

Only a quarter of Promise programs are run as first-dollar scholarships. That means money received from Promise programs is applied to tuition before state and federal aid, like Pell grants. That frees up the additional financial aid money for students to spend towards books, housing and other expenses. The majority of Promise programs however are last-dollar versions, so students only get promise dollars after state and federal aid have been fully applied to their tuition bill.

“It’s a lot less costly to the particular promise programs. But it also means that students, most likely the low-income students, probably are not getting any more dollars,-” Meredith Billings, a college affordability researcher at Sam Houston State University, told the PBS NewsHour. “And instead, some of the benefits are probably going to either the middle income or the higher income students that might not be eligible for federal or state aid.”

Critics of the last-dollar approach say these programs would better benefit low-income students by designing them to be first-dollar.

“Promise programs are only addressing tuition and fees, and often they’re doing that by relying on student’s Pell Grants to pay for part of that. What that means is that students no longer have access to those Pell Grants to pay for the full cost of college, which includes things like room and board, transportation, and books.” Miller-Adams said.

“The costs of college are much, much bigger than just tuition and fees. For many people in the United States today, it’s quite unaffordable.”