Understanding the design of college promise programs, and where to go from here

Students cheer as U.S. President Barack Obama attends the 2010 Kalamazoo Central High School graduation at Western Michigan University in Michigan, June 7, 2010.       REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS EDUCATION) - GM1E6680PVY01

Promise programs, or free college programs, are increasingly popular solutions to college affordability issues. Typically, these programs offer college scholarships to recent high school graduates to cover up to 100 percent of tuition and fees at postsecondary institutions in close proximity to the promise community. According to the College Promise Campaign, there are currently over 200 promise programs in 41 states, with many communities and states considering their own program. Promise programs have also caught the attention of politicians as they are popular with middle-class voters who are concerned about the rising costs of postsecondary education and the increasing student debt burden of young adults.

As more communities and states discuss creating a promise program for their students, not enough attention has focused on the variation in design and how these design decisions impact student outcomes. These decisions directly affect which students are eligible for the scholarship and which postsecondary institutions can receive the scholarship. Typically, these decisions are made due to budget constraints, local community context, or preferences of stakeholders on which type of student should benefit from the promise scholarship. In this post, I discuss the variation in promise program designs and what we know (so far) about their impact on college outcomes. I also offer design recommendations to communities who want to create a promise program for their residents.

The Kalamazoo Promise and the evolving design of promise programs

Promise programs were made popular by the Kalamazoo Promise. The Kalamazoo Promise (in Kalamazoo, Michigan) offers students in Kalamazoo Public Schools the opportunity to attend college tuition-free at any in-state, two-year or four-year public college or university if they meet the residency requirements and graduate from one of the four local high schools. The scholarships are prorated based on students’ length of attendance in the school district: Students who attend the school district for four years receive 65 percent of the scholarship, and students who attend the school district for all thirteen years (K-12) receive 100 percent of the scholarship.

Since the widely publicized announcement of the Kalamazoo Promise in November 2005, many communities have decided to start a promise program for their students. As new communities create their version, they have moved away from the residency-only design of the Kalamazoo Promise to consider additional eligibility criteria such as academic merit, financial need, high school attendance, school disciplinary record, and/or leadership potential. They have also narrowed the list of promise-eligible postsecondary institutions from any in-state public college or university to a restricted set of postsecondary schools—in most cases, local community colleges.

In a recent study, I examined how the promise program design has evolved from the original design of the Kalamazoo Promise to its current form focusing on student eligibility criteria and benefits offered by the promise scholarship. Since the Kalamazoo Promise is a local promise program, I restricted the list of promise programs to those located within high schools, school districts, college service areas, towns, cities, and counties. My sample comprised of 153 local promise programs that were adopted between the years of 2005—2017, after the Kalamazoo Promise was announced.[1]

The three most common changes to the student eligibility criteria of the promise scholarship are the addition of academic merit, financial need, and school attendance. About half of promise programs require students to meet a minimum high school grade point average, minimum ACT/SAT test score, and/or place into college-level courses. Approximately one out of five promise programs have financial need criteria and one out of seven programs require students to meet a minimum level of attendance in high school.

One major change in scholarship benefits is the switch from a first-dollar design to a last-dollar design. First-dollar or last-dollar refers to when the scholarship dollars are applied to the tuition bill. Promise programs with first-dollar designs apply scholarship dollars to the tuition bill first, before federal and state grant aid. Low-income students can then use need-based state and federal grant aid to cover any remaining tuition or fees (if they were not eligible for 100 percent of the scholarship) or for living expenses, books, transportation, and other educational supplies. Under the first-dollar design, low-income students receive more money than they would have otherwise received.

Approximately 75 percent of local promise programs are now last-dollar scholarships. These programs require fewer financial resources to maintain as students’ tuition bills are covered by federal and state grant aid instead of the promise program. Since most promise scholarships only cover tuition and fees, low-income students may not receive any money from the last-dollar programs because these expenses are already covered by other sources. Instead, these programs tend to subsidize middle- or high-income students because they are not eligible for federal and/or state grant aid. Since middle- and high-income students are more likely to go to college, usually last-dollar programs do not increase college access—instead, they may shift students toward the promise-eligible postsecondary institutions.

There has also been a change in which type of postsecondary institution students can use their promise scholarship to pay for. Instead of allowing students to use their promise scholarship at four-year colleges and universities, approximately 65 percent of local promise programs restrict students to community colleges. This may have unintended consequences of reducing the percentage of students who earn bachelor’s degrees because students who start at community colleges (as opposed to four-year universities) are less likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.

Difficulties replicating the results from the Kalamazoo Promise

Overall, the Kalamazoo Promise has had strong, positive impacts on college enrollment, choice, and degree completion. Based on my dissertation research, students who were eligible for the Kalamazoo Promise increased their college enrollment by 9-11 percentage points within one year of their expected high school graduation and increased their degree completion by 5 percentage points within six years of their expected high school graduation compared to students in a set of poor urban school districts from across the state. Most of the enrollment impacts were concentrated at the four-year, promise-eligible colleges and universities. These results are similar to the enrollment and degree completion estimates presented in a prior evaluation of the Kalamazoo Promise by the Upjohn Institute.

However, many newer promise programs—especially programs that have added eligibility criteria – have failed to replicate the positive results of the Kalamazoo Promise. The Pittsburgh Promise (in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) and the New Haven Promise (in New Haven, Connecticut) are two merit-based promise programs that require students to earn a minimum high school GPA and attend school 90 percent of the time. The New Haven Promise has two other criteria: the completion of 40 hours of community service and no expulsions on the students’ high school record. These added criteria restrict the pool of applicants to students who may be more likely to attend college regardless of the scholarship. In addition, these students may be from more stable family situations because they have consistently attended high school and had time to complete 40 hours of community service after school. Based on several studies, the Pittsburgh Promise and the New Haven Promise have not increased the overall college enrollment for eligible students. Instead, the Pittsburgh Promise may have shifted students toward promise-eligible, in-state universities.

One promise program that changed some design components of the Kalamazoo Promise but still managed to have positive, but smaller, impacts on college access and choice was Knox Achieves. Knox Achieves was a last-dollar, residency-only promise program in Knox County, Tennessee, and the precursor to the Tennessee Promise, the statewide, free community college program. Researchers found that Knox Achieves increased the overall college enrollment of its students by 3.5-4 percentage points and increased the enrollment in community colleges by 3-5 percentage points within nine months of high school graduation. Unlike the Kalamazoo Promise, Knox Achieves provided students with community mentors who helped students through the financial aid and college admission and enrollment process.

Focus on college access instead of college choice

Today, the typical promise program includes academic merit (in addition to residency) for the student eligibility criteria and is a last-dollar scholarship that can only be used at the local postsecondary institution—usually a community college. I argue that promise programs have moved too far away from the college access margin (affecting whether students go to college) and are now too close to the college choice margin (affecting where students go to college). This change may erode one of the main goals of promise programs, to increase the postsecondary educational attainment of their students. Instead, these programs may be just shifting the students who were already planning to go to college towards a different set of postsecondary schools – the promise-eligible institutions. As there are still wide disparities in college enrollment and completion by race/ethnicity and socio-economic status, more attention and resources are needed to ensure that all students have the opportunity to enroll and complete postsecondary education.

I recommend for promise programs to return to the residency-only eligibility criteria and drop the academic merit, attendance, and community service requirements. These additional criteria significantly reduces the percent of students who are eligible for the promise scholarship. In New Haven, only 30-36 percent of high school graduates, met the attendance, minimum GPA, and residency requirements; in Pittsburgh, that number was only 46-49 percent of high school graduates. This is a stark contrast to the 79-89 percent of high school graduates who met the residency-only criteria in Kalamazoo. While I understand that programs seek to motivate students to work harder in school and in their personal life by requiring academic excellence, good attendance, and community service, these requirements may be significant barriers for students who cannot focus their full attention on school as they have other responsibilities, such as working part-time and/or providing care for family members.

Since most promise programs are last-dollar, I recommend for promise programs to provide additional services to students beyond the promise scholarship. This is particularly important for low-income students who may not receive any scholarship dollars from the promise programs because their tuition and fees are already covered by state and/or federal grant aid. As mentioned previously, one last-dollar promise scholarship, the Tennessee Promise, provides students with community mentors during their senior year of high school. Other promise programs offer college-readiness activities or college and career counseling that can reduce informational gaps and increase knowledge about college. In addition, promise programs are in a strong position to serve as the community coordinator of college preparation and enrollment services by working with other nonprofit organizations and the local college access network (if available) to promote higher education for all.


  1. To construct my list of promise programs, I used three main sources: PennAhead Database of College Promise Programs, W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research Promise Database, and Regional Educational Laboratory West at West Ed. When the sources conflicted, I verified the information using articles, websites, and press releases. (Back to top)