Promise Programs Aren't Just About the Money

Posted by Maica Pichler on March 22, 2016 at 11:00 AM

Free college tuition, an issue that was not even on the radar four years ago, is now being implemented across our country (TN, OR, more than 40 local communities).  These are the “early adopters” that are confident such programs will produce incredibly important results--more skilled workers who are able to get on the ladder to economic success, more tax revenue for and less spending by state and local governments, reduced wage inequality—in which both the psychological and financial upfront costs are more than balanced by the outcomes.


BUT, and this is essential to the conversation, Promise Programs, as these are called, have many elements beyond the money.  This is NOT just about dollars.  Providing scholarships to more students does not mean throwing good money after bad.  It means reforms across the boards of how we think about the transition from K-12 to college for students who are often not prepared for college.

Promise Programs’ successes do arise, in part, from providing more financial resources to students who need it.  But, the real secret of Promise Programs’ successes are the ways they change the entire discussion of going to college in the minds of students, their parents, their schools, employers, and the entire communities or states in which they live.  Successful Promise programs bring an entire spectrum of change to the community and to the impacted schools, both K-12 and college, all focused on ensuring the students both access and succeed in college. That cultural change is something other aspects of higher education financing reform, such as debt relief or repayment methodologies, cannot create.   

Unbiased research results have been published demonstrating the value of Promise Programs. Many of them were shared at the 2015 PromiseNet national conference held in the birthplace of the Promise movement, Kalamazoo, MI to celebrate the tenth anniversary of that program’s enormously successful program. An audience of community based educational change agents from around the country shared compelling data and stories about how Promise Programs had caused their local K-12 schools to improve their college readiness programs, how employers had become involved in mentoring aspiring and actual college students, and how families had taken renewed interest in the quality of their local schools, including community colleges.  

So what makes Promise Programs fundamentally different from the straw man the critics attack, based on their incorrect notion, intentional or not, that the only difference from current practices is providing more money?

The most successful of the 50 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.

More detailed discussions of the importance of these elements will be covered in future articles, but most people can see how these are beneficial on their faces.  And data prove it. For example, six years after high school, 48% of Kalamazoo’s public high school graduates attained a credential once its Promise Program began in 2005. This represented a 12-point gain compared to the city’s pre-Promise performance, or a one-third increase in college completion. Eighty percent of this increase came from bachelor degree attainment, with the greatest gains among minorities and women.  Huge signs of success.

One obstacle many people point to that stands in the way of obtaining college grants is the complex federal financial aid application, commonly referred to as FAFSA.  FAFSA does need simplification, but Tennessee jumped to the head of the line in Pell Grant money awarded when they required the existing FAFSA’s completion as a requirement for becoming a Tennessee Promise scholar. In addition, when many states were seeing community college enrollments drop because of the drop in unemployment, Tennessee saw a 24.7% increase.  

Promise Programs will not bring nirvana.  Many fundamental obstacles to college access and completion still remain, many based on poorly performing K-12 schools and family situations.  One criticism is that most Promise Programs cover tuition, but not living expenses and other college related costs.  That criticism is accurate, but two points must be kept in mind:  1) many students who are in Promise Programs have additional ways to cut costs (e.g., by living at home) and increase resources (e.g., working while in school, and, less preferred, student loans), and 2) the perfect is the enemy of the good.  Let’s get over the political obstacles to nationwide availability of Promise Programs first.  Then we can promote further expansion of benefits.

The proof of dramatic improvements from the Promise Program are there.  When a conservative state such as Tennessee, under the leadership of their businessman, Republican Governor Bill Haslam, and Oregon, a liberal state, primarily promoted by a Democratic State Senator, Mark Haas, are the first two to adopt statewide Promise Programs, you know there must be tremendous value in them.   


Morley Winograd,

CFCT President


Harris Miller,

CFCT Strategy Team Member


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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.