Promise Programs

Promise Programs are place-based scholarship programs that make college tuition free for at least one college. While all require residency and a high school diploma, some have additional eligibility criteria – such as a minimum GPA. Promise communities have grown from one – Kalamazoo, Michigan – in 2005 to over 50, plus statewide programs in Tennessee and Oregon. They range in size from Northport, MI – population 526 – to Pittsburgh, PA – population 305,842 – and are delivering what they promised -- more college attendance and completion, plus a talented workforce that helps to grow the economy.

Find out more about the benefits of a Promise Program, click here.

Case Studies

The Community Effect

The Kalamazoo Promise is helping steer the city in a new direction. In the years immediately following the implementation of the program, enrollment of local students in Kalamazoo Public Schools increased, housing values fared better than almost anywhere else in the state, wages and salary employment were the best of the 14 Metropolitan Statistical Areas in Michigan, and the population even began to increase.

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Free College Tuition, an American Issue

A red Southern state and a blue Northwest state: two trail blazers in higher education reforms.” and Randy Boyd, Tennessee Commissioner of Economic and Community Development, simply put it, “Education shouldn't be a Democratic or a Republican issue. Some things are above politics"

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The Power of a Promise: David Mann

David Mann was born in raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His parents would have had a difficult time paying for college had he lived in any other city. David’s family encouraged him to attend college and pursue his sports marketing dreams. But it wasn’t until the fall of 2005, when the Kalamazoo School District unveiled the Kalamazoo Promise, that that dream became a reality.

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Local Promise Programs

The Promise movement started in 2005 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, when a generous but anonymous gift allowed the city to promise free college tuition at any Michigan institution of higher education to graduates of the city’s public schools. Since then, the idea has expanded to communities across the country.

Where Promise programs are not yet a reality, many organizations are working to expand college access across the country. As a result of their work, more and more people care deeply about this cause.

 

See what’s happening near you.

Map Legend

Location of a scholarship or promise program where college tuition is free for most

Location of a scholarship or promise program with some caveats or restrictions based on income or GPA

Promise proposal under consideration.

Let us know about new Promise Program proposals in your community!

 

( Hover over a program to find out more )

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s working?

When higher education seems financially attainable and guidance is provided, students better understand how their actions affect their future, leading to better academic and behavioral outcomes. This is certainly the case in Kalamazoo, Michigan where the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research has extensively studied the Kalamazoo Promise. Their research has found that the guarantee of free college tuition has led to a significant decrease in high school suspensions and a dramatic increase in the GPAs of African American students, ranging from 0.17 to 0.60 standard deviations after controlling for “fixed effects.”

In addition to improved high school achievement, the impact on college enrollment and outcomes has also been largely positive for Kalamazoo students. Since the program started with the class of 2006, more than 90 percent of KPS graduates continued on to college, compared to the two-thirds of high school graduates who enroll in college nationwide. Today, 41 percent of Promise scholars from the class of 2006 hold a bachelor’s degree compared to 37 percent of all U.S. high school graduates between the ages of 25 to 29 -- a significant difference especially after taking into account the demographics of Kalamazoo.

The Tennessee Promise is the cornerstone of Governor Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55, which aims ensure Tennessee’s future workforce and economic development needs by having 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025. It is off to a great start as the first Tennessee Promise cohort of 15,800 helped increase freshman enrollment at community colleges by 24.7% and 20% at Colleges of Applied Technology. Tennessee is currently the number one state in the nation for FAFSA completions – as it is a requirement for the Tennessee Promise – and accounted for 40% of all new financial aid submissions nationwide.

How do Promise Programs work?

There are two main Promise Program models. Last dollar Promise Programs are most common. They require applicants to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and will pay the remaining college tuition balance after Pell Grant and state scholarship programs are applied. First dollar scholarships are much less common – due to cost – and cover college tuition and required fees before Federal and state grants. In communities with last dollar Promise Programs, lower income students can use Pell Grant and state grant funds to pay for textbooks, transportation, housing and other non-tuition expenses.

In virtually all instances, Promise Programs pay for tuition and fees at a local community college. However, there are some that allow scholars to attend any in-state public college and select private institutions too.

What are the elements of a successful Promise Program?

The most successful state and local Promise Programs share several common elements beyond simply making tuition free. Most of them,

  1. Start information outreach early, when students are still in middle school, so the students and parents, especially lower income families, can understand that cost will not be an obstacle to college attendance,
  2. Provide mentors who begin their tasks with high school students and continue through completion,
  3. Require minimum but reasonable academic performance criteria,
  4. Encourage students/parents to exhaust every existing grant program for higher education, including Pell Grants and those provided by various states,
  5. Offer meaningful educational remediation for students whose deficiencies make handling college level work virtually impossible, whether those deficiencies be in English comprehension and usage or math,
  6. Create higher but reasonable expectations of schools themselves, especially community colleges and training schools, with negative consequences if they fail to achieve.

How do you pay for them?

Since nothing is ever really free, many people ask us this question. States such as Tennessee and Oregon, which have made their community colleges tuition free, found the money for these programs by making it a priority in their state budgeting process. Any state could do the same. Over fifty communities have also made college tuition free by instituting “Promise Programs,” which offer, in effect, place-based college scholarships for their residents. Funds for these types of programs have come from a combination of private philanthropy and community commitments. Other innovative ideas include leveraging the purchasing power of local government agencies using the Community Link Foundation’s procurement model, tapping private investment funds through social impact bonds, or involving local employers to support associate degree programs that produce the skilled workers those employers need. While none of these sources depend on federal government revenue, many of them make maximum use of existing student aid programs such as Pell Grants to help fund their “promise.”

Are Promise Programs Partisan?

"The need for more affordable colleges isn't partisan, it is not even bipartisan, it is non-partisan... It is like the North Star being in the North," said Oregon State Senator Make Haas at CFCT’s Northwest Summit on College Affordability in 2015.

On the state level, Tennessee, which has a Republican governor and legislature, and Oregon, with a Democratic Governor and legislature, have implemented state-wide Promise Programs. Additionally, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, a Republican elected in 2015, approved $15.9 million to fund Work Ready scholarships – a “last dollar” scholarship for Kentucky high school graduates to fully pay tuition and mandatory fees at any Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) institution – for the 2017-18 school year.

Communities with Promise Programs are also politically diverse and include Tulsa, Oklahoma and El Dorado, Arkansas in the South, and former manufacturing centers – such as Detroit, Michigan, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Buffalo, New York – that are continuing to transition to knowledge-based industries.

We can't do this alone!

Our goal is to make higher education a possibility for every American, without regard to their financial circumstances.

We have a lot to do and not much time to do it, so your support is critical for our campaign to succeed. It’s with your investment that we can fundamentally reform how higher education is financed in this country, opening the doors to a more equitable society.

If you agree with our goal, our plan, and the urgency of the problem, we ask that you give what you can to help us write the next chapter in our nation’s history of continuously expanding access to universal, free education.

The Campaign for Free College Tuition is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization established in the State of Washington in 2014 to educate parents, students, the higher education community, policy makers and taxpayers about efforts needed to fundamentally reform our nation’s system for financing higher education. This website and CFCT’s educational outreach activities are made possible through generous individual and foundation support.

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