Promise programs, or “free” college programs that cover tuition and fees for students attending college in a specific geographic area, are becoming increasingly popular. The College Promise Campaign estimates over 350 programs nationally. We conducted two studies of 33 Promise programs that each provide tuition benefits at a single community college and analyzed enrollment effects.
In our first study, which is part of an edited volume on Promise programs, we explored changes in total first-time, full-time students in response to programs, observing years 1998-99 to 2015-16. Compared to nearby colleges without a Promise program, colleges with a Promise program saw, on average, an enrollment increase of 22%. For the average college, this increase was equivalent to an additional 180 students during the years after a program began. On average, total enrollment increased 3% each year, resulting in 25 additional students annually.
In our second study, we analyzed effects for sub-populations of students holding various gender and racial identities, across years 2000-01 to 2014-15. Promise programs increased initial college enrollment of Black males by 47%, Black females by 51%, Hispanic males by 40%, and Hispanic females by 52%. Programs had positive yet smaller effects on White males (32%) and White females (24%). On the other hand, programs did not impact enrollment numbers for Asian and Pacific Islander students—a finding that deserves additional scholarly attention.
Our results offer compelling evidence that Promise programs at community colleges increase initial college enrollment and are especially effective for historically marginalized students. These effect sizes are considerably larger than those resulting from other types of grants or scholarships, indicating that free college programs have an impact beyond just reducing the price of college. Perhaps this is due to Promise programs’ “college for all” message.
We further compared programs with certain features against their non-promise control colleges. Programs without need-based criteria increased enrollment by 28%, compared to non-promise colleges. However, programs with income limits did not increase enrollment numbers. Additionally, compared to colleges without Promise programs, full-tuition and partial-tuition programs both increased enrollment by 25% and 22%, respectively. Similarly, first-dollar programs (which allocate aid before other aid sources) produced an increase of 23%, while last-dollar programs (which allocate aid only after other sources are disbursed) produced an increase of 25%.
For policymakers, designing a program without need-based income limits would increase college entry for the greatest number of students. Our findings also suggest that the “free college” message of Promise programs may encourage initial college enrollment, regardless of the amount of tuition coverage and the first/last-dollar component. If the goal is to increase college enrollment, policymakers should consider that the value of programs may be substantial even if they do not cover full tuition for two years. A smaller financial commitment per student (such as offering full tuition for the first year only) could still increase enrollments. However, such an approach may be less effective at improving college retention and completion rates.
Across the different demographic groups, we compared programs with each design feature versus the absence of such features—a sample that included programs without the feature as well as nearby colleges without Promise programs. Results suggest that the enrollment of White students more than doubled in response to first-dollar programs. Yet, first-dollar programs did not result in enrollment changes for the other student subgroups. Programs with merit-based criteria (e.g. minimum high school GPA) had large effects on Asian and Pacific Islander females (a 42% enrollment increase), White males (32%), and White females (77%). Even though overall effects were not observed for Asian and Pacific Islander students, merit-based programs in particular did increase enrollment.
Programs with need-based criteria (e.g. income limits) produced smaller enrollment increases for Asian and Pacific Islander, Hispanic, and White students. Full-tuition programs appeared to benefit Asian and Pacific Islander males (63% enrollment increase) and females (49%), while producing no enrollment changes among the other groups.
Interestingly, in both studies we found that extra student support services such as mentoring and advising during college did not yield larger enrollment effects. It is possible that these supports matter more for retention and graduation, and not initial college entry. Thus, if policymakers are focused on getting students to college, support services may not be necessary, but we suspect that the availability of services (e.g. financial aid counseling, academic advising) would improve retention rates.
In sum, policymakers should consider adopting Promise programs for community colleges because they can boost enrollment for a wide range of students. It is also important for colleges to have sufficient resources to serve the additional students enrolling because of a Promise program, some of whom may have not attended college otherwise. Additional research should focus on Promise program effects on first- to second-year retention, associate degree completion, and transfer to 4-year institutions.
Dr. Denisa Gándara is an assistant professor of Education Policy and Leadership at Southern Methodist University. Her work examines higher education policy, politics, and finance with a focus on populations that have historically been underserved in higher education. Her recent research and current projects on "free college," higher education accountability, funding equity and adequacy, and the politics of higher education can be found at denisagandara.com
Amy Li is an assistant professor of higher education at Florida International University. Her research focuses on higher education finance and public policy, specifically performance funding, promise programs, student loan debt, state appropriations, and policy adoption. She studies the impact of local and state policies on college access and completion and is particularly interested in outcomes for historically underrepresented populations.
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