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 300 at the community level along with free college tuition programs in at least 32 states. Communities ranging in size from Northport, MI – population 526 – to Pittsburgh, PA – population 305,842 – are delivering what they promised: more college attendance and completion, plus a talented workforce that helps to grow the economy.
To find out how and where tuition free college is available, check out the status of such programs at the state level by hovering your cursor over the state you live in on our momentum map. You can also click here to find out more about promise programs in communities near you.
Since becoming Governor in January 2015, creating high paying jobs in the Ocean State has been a priority of Raimondo’s. This required her and her staff to focus on the state’s skill gap since 70 percent of Rhode Island jobs required some postsecondary education, but more than half of adult residents only have a high school diploma.
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.
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"
For additional in-depth analysis, we suggest reviewing the case studies recently published by Research for Action on the statewide Promise programs of four states—Delaware, Nevada, Oregon, and Tennessee.
Two red lights. That’s how small Emily Buckner’s hometown in Gainesboro, Tennessee is. At the time of the 2010 census, there were 962 people living in this small, southern town. When she was a child and college seemed so far away, the message of attending Tennessee Tech (the local four-year school) was reinforced again and again due to her community’s social norms. But Emily wasn’t so sure she was going to follow a traditional path.
Jake Childs grew up in Kingston, Tennessee, a town of 5,900 merely two hours away from booming Nashville. He always knew he was going to attend college but was nervous about how he would afford it. He also wrestled with insecurities around how he could be academically successful given the perception that college was more challenging than high school.
Brittany Bergschicker grew up in Collierville, a suburb of Memphis as the youngest of four children. She always knew that she wanted to go to college and remembers driving by the local community college campus as a child. She told her mom, “I’m going to go to there one day.”
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.
Below we feature the Upjohn Institute's Promise Program Map, which hosts a wealth of information on Promise programs across the country.
Full Promise Program Database
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.
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.
The most successful state and local Promise Programs share several common elements beyond simply making tuition free. Most of 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.”
"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, were the first to implement state-wide Promise Programs. Since then, red, blue, and purple states around the nation have enacted the policy with overwhelming bipartisan support. In 2019, Mitch Carmichael, the President of the West Virginia State Senate, gained unanimous support from the state’s Republican majority legislature to make colleges tuition free. Similarly, in the Democratic-controlled state of Connecticut, the leaders of the legislature’s Joint Higher Education Committee – State Representative Greg Haddad and State Senator Will Haskell – spearheaded the passage of legislation making their community colleges tuition free starting in the Fall of 2020.
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.
Learn how you can help make college tuition-free in your community.
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