To Promise Program Critics

Posted by Maica Pichler on April 26, 2017 at 6:55 AM

Major public policy changes, such as promise programs, which make public colleges tuition free, should be subject to scrutiny, criticism, and improvement. We at CFCT welcome them. But we implore critics to move out of their Ivory Towers, where they can create hypothetical problems 365 days of the year, and instead focus on the demonstrable operation and impact of promise programs. The critics are entitled to their own opinions. They are not entitled to their own facts.

Photo: New York Times
Cuomo Free College

The idea of free college tuition and its positive impact on individuals, society, and the economy was not on the radar as recently as three years ago. Even though free college tuition programs have existed in several cities for some time, most notably Kalamazoo, Michigan, which started the movement in 2005, the policy debates on expanding higher education opportunity for more low and middle income students centered on controlling rising tuition costs and putting more federal and state funds into grants for low income students. Little analysis focused on the poor higher education outcomes for many lower income students – except in the context of the attacks on for profit colleges. The financial challenges for lower middle income and middle income students also received only passing attention.

The Campaign for Free College Tuition (CFCT) generated much more interest in the subject when it released its federal plan to make public colleges tuition free in 2014. It builds on the success of local promise programs that provide free college tuition to many lower and especially middle income students.

The results are clear. First, many more students enroll for postsecondary education in technical programs, community colleges, and four year colleges where promise programs exist. The students also come from a broader socio-economic group. The promise programs create an expectation of college attendance on the part of students and families who otherwise may think of college as out of their financial and academic reach.

Secondly, promise programs have shown an incredibly successful impact on completion rates by getting more buy in from students and families, and adding the essential element of individual, volunteer mentors and other support services needed to change the culture and behavior in each community.

Mentors are critical in convincing students 1) to apply for postsecondary education, and 2) in educating potential dropouts that they have not reached an impossible challenge when they receive a bad grade or do not have enough money for transportation.

These “life gets in the way” obstacles occur very frequently for lower and lower middle income students. The response of too many educators is just to assume that these students are the detritus of open admissions. Promise proves that assumption wrong. Many promise programs also require students to make their own promises, e.g, to achieve positive outcomes in their classrooms and to give back through community service.

While CFCT, President Obama, several 2016 candidates for President, Republican Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee, and other states and localities were moving ahead with implementing or creating promise programs, critics emerged who predicted such programs would be harmful for various reasons. Their argument included: public monies should be directed towards low income students who need the most help financially; making college free will cheapen its value; such programs will harm private colleges be directing more students to state institutions.

Today there are 3 states and nearly 100 localities operating versions of Promise Programs. Other states, such as Arkansas and New York, are about to come online and state legislatures in Rhode Island and Hawaii are close to approval. Yet the criticism continues.

It is essential to understand that the critics continue to focus on hypothetical strawmen versions of free college tuition rather than existing programs. Even when programs have undergone extensive, long term review by credible outside researchers, and produced substantial operational and outcome data, the critics ignore them. They prefer expressing opinions  rather than looking at facts.

Why? Could it be because their hypothetical problems are not occurring in programs that are operating? For instance, the primary concern of many critics—that low income students will suffer because middle income students will also be eligible for free tuition—turns out not to be true in practice. As the message that college tuition is free penetrates kitchen table conversations, lower income families decide to take advantage of the offer, expanding the number of such students in our colleges, in direct contradiction to the critics’ prognostications.

Also, completion rates for lower income students increase, often from appallingly low levels, thereby addressing the rightful concern that too many students are wasting their own time and money, they are not receiving the economic boost postsecondary education is designed to provide them, and taxpayer money is being wasted.

In Kalamazoo, Michigan, the home of the nation’s first free college tuition program, research shows that their promise has had a definitive impact on the medium sized, rust-belt community. These include a 12-percentage point effect on overall postsecondary education attainment and a 50 percent increase in the probability of low income students enrolling in and completing 4-year college. Today, more students from the city’s public schools graduate high school, enroll and complete college than do students from the non-public schools, who have a higher average family income among their student body.

The admittedly complicated FAFSA or federal student aid application is often cited as a barrier to low income students receiving federal student aid for which they are eligible. Yet, over 70 percent of 2015-16 high school seniors in Tennessee have completed one. Why? Because to attend college tuition-free using the last dollar Tennessee Promise, a student must first get a decision on the amount of federal aid, primarily Pell Grants, for which she is eligible. In effect, the state’s marketing message of free community college tuition has expanded the amount of Pell Grant money flowing to poorer families in Tennessee from the federal government without anyone in Congress having to cast a vote raising the amount of aid available.

In Tennessee, Republican Governor Bill Haslam made the Tennessee Promise the cornerstone of his administration’s efforts to move from 43rd in the nation in educational attainment to having 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025. In the first year of the Tennessee Promise, 15,800 high school seniors signed up, which helped increase freshman enrollment at community colleges by 24.7% and by 20% at Tennessee’s Colleges of Applied Technology. Community college enrollments were decreasing in most other states as unemployment dropped, the usual countercyclical tradeoff between the state of the economy and postsecondary enrollments. The Tennessee Promise continued to attract high school graduates in its second year with 16,790 new students enrolling in 2016 while other state community college systems continued an enrollment decline, often substantial.

Overall, there has been a 13% increase in first-time freshman enrollment in Tennessee public higher education between Fall 2014 and Fall 2016. The initial results from Tennessee were so positive that Governor Haslam and his state’s Republican-controlled legislature are in the process of expanding tuition-free community college to all adults who want to go back to school to obtain the skills they need for a higher paying job.

Given these and other proven successes, we urge those status quo defenders who continue to repeat potential problems with hypothetical free college programs to redirect their energy to examining the positive outcomes—the facts—promise programs are producing across the country. Again, we, and more importantly the governments who are galloping forward to create promise programs, welcome legitimate criticisms and suggested improvements. Who knows? Maybe the critics, faced with the facts, will become the strongest promise program advocates.

- Harris Miller, CFCT Strategy Team Member

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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.

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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.