Promise Programs Key to Improving States’ Workforce Skills

Posted by Maica Pichler on June 16, 2016 at 8:06 AM

Over one hundred leading higher education policy influencers gathered last week at Educational Testing Service, ETS, headquarters in Princeton, NJ to discuss ways to provide Promise Programs with sustainable funding sources, whether from the public or private sector.  Joining ETS in sponsoring the conference was the America’s College Promise Campaign led by Martha Kanter, former U.S. Under Secretary for Education and prior to that, Chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District in California.



One of the most well received presentations at the conference was given by Randy Boyd, who spoke in March at CFCT’s Southern Summit on College Affordability and leads Governor Bill Haslam’s economic development efforts as Commissioner of Economic and Community Development, on the Tennessee Promise -- a ground-breaking initiative enacted in 2014 that makes the state’s  community and technical colleges tuition free. Within the context of this emerging, bipartisan consensus that community colleges should and can be tuition free, it was totally unexpected to read Kevin Cook’s recent blog for the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) arguing that somehow Promise programs lead to an overall decrease in college enrollment and incent students to fail to attain a four-year degree.

Let’s start with the evidence from the first year of the Tennessee Promise program’s implementation as to why PPIC should have no such concerns about making community colleges tuition free again in California. As documented by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission , overall college enrollment in the state of Tennessee was up 10.1% in the fall of 2015 when the first Tennessee Promise scholars could attend community and technical colleges tuition-free , compared to the fall of 2014 when no such option was available. Enrollment in community colleges was up 24.1% and by 20% for the state’s technical colleges. Enrollment declines in the state’s four year universities were 8.4% for Tennessee Board of Regents universities and 4.6% for the state’s flagship University of Tennessee. But those declines of 18,588 students paled in comparison to the gains at two year institutions totaling 32,111, only about 14,000 of which were Tennessee Promise Scholars. The message that Governor Haslam had sent by making a college degree or certificate the goal for 55% of the state’s workforce has sparked new interest in college attendance among the entire population, not just high school graduates who were eligible for free tuition.


TN Table.PNG


The  Campaign for College Opportunity (CCO) has clearly documented that a major gap in the skills needed in California’s workforce also exists, predicting a shortage of 1.1 million bachelor degrees by 2030 based on the changing nature of work in the state.   Given that Tennessee’s Promise program is the only one in any state to have made a significant dent in this problem, it is quite surprising to read an argument opposing the adoption of a California Promise program from a group as knowledgeable as PPIC.  

Cook, writing for PPIC, argues the lower completion rates at community colleges compared to four year universities creates the possibility that all of those new students in community colleges might not end up completing their education which, he asserts, they might have done if they had enrolled in a four year college instead. Leaving aside that those types of comparisons are of the apples to oranges variety given the vastly different acceptance criteria for the CSU and UC systems compared to the open enrollment mandate for the state’s community colleges, the data Cook presents to prove his point is inherently flawed. He uses six year averages of bachelor degree attainment by high school GPA between two and four year programs to demonstrate that two year schools produce fewer four-year baccalaureate degrees. As well they should, of course, since one of the purposes of the state’s community colleges is to provide students with two year certificates/degrees to fill equally critical needs in the state’s workforce skills.  

Beyond that obvious logical flaw, his data ignores the passage of SB 1440 that completely reformed California’s transfer degree programs so that those community college students earning an associate’s degree have a much easier path to complete their bachelor’s degree at one of the four year California State Universities (CSU). Encouraging such pathways saves both the students and the state significant amounts of money that could be used to fund the type of assistance with the other costs of college that PPIC places a priority upon. Students would only pay for tuition for half of their four years of higher education and the state would save whatever the difference between the cost of educating a community college student and one who is enrolled at a CSU campus might be.

Given these facts, it is hard to understand why PPIC would argue against the implementation of free community college tuition in California. Their blog’s suggestion that more should be done instead to provide money for non-tuition expenses for lower income students ignores the money that would be freed up to do just that by creating a California Promise.  

In communities with long standing universal Promise programs, the students who have benefited the most from free tuition have been minorities and women, presumably many of the students PPIC is interested in helping.  As the California Coordinating Council for Higher Education pointed out, the state has long been committed to free tuition “based on the principle that state residents should have broad access to the university, and a well-educated citizenry was essential to meeting evolving state and national economic needs.” That principle is as true in this century as it was in the last one.  

Creating a California Promise program that would make the state’s community colleges universally free, as has always been true for the state’s K-12 educational system is the best first step the state could take to increasing college enrollment opportunities for everyone and improving the skills of the state’s workforce. The Campaign for Free College Tuition will continue to work to make that happen in the months and years ahead in California and throughout the country.


Morley Winograd

CFCT President


David Wolf

CFCT Advisory Board Member


BREAKING: The Tennessee Promise earns high praises in recent article. Read more about what makes Free College Tuition the right choice.



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