The Promise and Perils of Free College
*Names in bold indicate Presenter
Small place-based U.S. scholarships date back to at least the 1950s, but Promise initiatives accelerated in 2005 when the Kalamazoo Promise committed to cover the tuition and fees of local students at any public Michigan college. The number of state and local place-based Promise scholarship programs is now approaching 100 and climbing. Four states have passed free community college legislation, and eleven more have introduced their own bills. The federal America’s College Promise Act of 2015 sought to cover community college tuition nationwide with a combination of state and federal funds. In 2016, presidential candidates proposed debt- or tutition-free policies to improve college access and success. The future of need-based and place-based aid under a Trump administration is uncertain, although state and local efforts show signs of growth rather than contraction.
A growing body of research shows that the availability of place-based Promise aid can increase college enrollment across diverse settings, but caution should be exercised before heralding the success of the free college model. First, it is not clear that greater access leads to greater college persistence or completion, particularly for needier students in “last dollar” Promise programs who receive little to no additional aid after Pell grants, merit aid, and institutional support are counted against tuition. Similarly, the impact of Promise availability on student wellbeing after college is murky, since most Promise initiatives are too new to examine post-college outcomes. Free community college initiatives, the least costly and most politically viable Promise model, may divert students away from the four-year college sector and lower the likelihood of a timely bachelor’s degree. More technically, there are empirical challenges in evaluating the Promise model where universal eligibility rules out quasi-experimental methods used in studies of merit-based or need-based aid.
This panel brings together three studies that examine one or more of the policy and evaluation challenges arising from the new wave of U.S. free college initiatives. One focuses on persistence and completion effects of a local free community college program in Tennessee, examing the tradeoffs between democratization of college access and diversion between college sectors. Another follows up with early beneficiaries of the Kalamazoo Promise, assessing the effect of first-dollar free college on credit worthiness, debt, and other measures of financial security after college. The third study is a rare experimental evaluation of a scholarship program that was framed as free community college, where results point to the importance of scale and diversion between higher education sectors. The session is chaired and critically discussed by experts in the higher education research field.