As 2020 presidential candidates debate America’s student debt crisis, researchers are measuring the effectiveness of current college funding strategies such as College Promise programs.
Promise programs guarantee free in-state tuition and are funded through state-controlled dollars. Such programs can be an essential part of academic and economic success for students, but certain states’ eligibility requirements limit the programs to a small percentage of students, according to a June report by The Century Foundation, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank.
Total investment in this type of aid has risen by an average of $107 million per year for the last three years. Yet they are projected to make up only 12 percent of all state public student aid in fiscal year 2020, according to researchers.
“Well-designed place-based tuition-free guarantees can, under the right conditions,” increase college applications and enrollment among low-income students, increase credential attainment, and even improve student outcomes at the K–12 level, the report states. “The rapid growth of such programs makes it even more urgent to ensure they are designed in a way that fulfills their promise.”
Most Promise programs offer last dollar funding, which requires that students use Pell grants and other awarded aid toward the cost of tuition before the state covers the remaining gap — a system that researchers say leaves out people who need additional financial help. “The hesitancy to commit to a truly universal “free college” model has meant that in some states as few as 5 percent of all students actually qualify for the program,” the study states.
Promise programs have been offered since 1990, but didn’t truly take off until 2014 when the Tennessee Promise Scholarship, which offers two-free years at a community or technical college, was enacted. Since then, 15 additional Promise programs have been implemented. There are currently 22 of these programs offered across 19 states.
Growth in popularity for the free aid programs has increased rapidly. They comprise nearly one-quarter of the growth in state public student aid since 2015.
Mariah Stewart is a staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article ran in the July/August 2019 issue.