States Consider College Promise Programs

Focus on last-dollar scholarship programs is increasing amid a nationwide push for free community college.
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  • College Promise programs help students pay for community college with last-dollar grants.
  • Forty-nine states now have at least one local College Promise program, according to College Promise CEO Martha Kanter
  • Dozens of states have some form of statewide College Promise program, and lawmakers in Kansas are considering expanding their current targeted scholarship.

Kansas lawmakers are considering an expansion to a statewide scholarship program for students in certain two-year programs — a move that reflects growing momentum for similar scholarship programs across the country.

The Kansas Promise scholarship program, initially approved by state lawmakers in 2021, provides "last-dollar" funding to students who attend certain two-year programs, according to The Topeka Capital-Journal. That scholarship has already seen success, according to the Capital-Journal, and lawmakers are considering a bill to expand that scholarship to students pursuing two-year education and transportation programs.

College Promise programs vary widely in their implementation, with a mix of local and state programs popping up across the country in recent years. Those programs generally provide last-dollar scholarships to students in two-year colleges in a bid to make higher education more accessible.

First lady Jill Biden, who spearheaded the nationwide College Promise movement, touted College Promise programs at Mesa Community College in February. BestColleges reported that Dr. Biden urged more communities to set up programs to help students pay for community college.

"Across the country, we're seeing programs like this one bridging the gap between what students learn and the careers they will eventually find," she said. "And we need more communities to follow Mesa's lead."

Martha Kanter, CEO of the national College Promise initiative, said she expects that new programs will come about in 2023.

Kanter told BestColleges that, in addition to the many localities that have enacted promise programs, dozens of states have already adopted some form of statewide last-dollar community college scholarship program.

"We have 30 already in place, and they range from universal to targeted," Kanter said. "Targeted are general in high-demand fields that the state wants to create a talent pipeline for those jobs."

Kanter said the nationwide focus on workforce development is spurring additional investment in community college scholarships.

"We're really excited that the states feel it's valuable to have a well-trained workforce," Kanter said. "And community colleges are the most affordable way to get that to happen."

Kanter said there are now 49 states with at least one local College Promise program, like the one in Mesa. Those programs tend to be as varied as the communities they're in and provide a wide range of support to students.

In Dallas, for example, a local program helps students with transportation costs in addition to tuition. BestColleges previously reported that many community colleges aren't easily accessible by public transit, according to research from the Civic Mapping Initiative, and transportation costs can sometimes limit students' ability to attend in-person classes.

College Promise programs gained momentum in 2022, particularly with the launch of Hope Chicago, a place-based scholarship program that doesn't include a GPA requirement and instead features guaranteed scholarships to graduates of several Chicago-area high schools. That program also features a scholarship for one parent or guardian of each scholarship recipient.

That program aims to scale the success of the Kalamazoo Promise, which has been shown to boost the number of students earning a postsecondary credential by roughly 12 percentage points, according to the Brookings Institution.

Challenges in Oregon

Oregon has one of the oldest College Promise programs in the country — but that program hasn't brought on the boosted enrollment or completion rates that officials hoped for, according to a recent report.

College-going rates increased in the first year after the program's implementation but declined over the five years that followed, according to the report by the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission. That study also "found no evidence to suggest that equity gaps in college-going" were cut back by the program.

"These findings suggest that the Oregon Promise has not led to lasting increases in enrollment,

momentum, completion, or equity — at least in the context of the pandemic and with the program requirements in place through 2021-22," the report reads. "These findings are consistent with the findings reported in 2020 and are aligned with national research, which has found early but not sustained increases in enrollment and limited or no increases in equity and completion."

The report notes that the program's main benefit "appears to be in its support of college affordability for students."

"This is an important impact, given the long-term negative consequences of

student loans for individuals and the state," the report reads.

The study noted that state officials recently changed some of the program's eligibility requirements, including lowering the minimum GPA to qualify to 2.0, eliminating a $50 per-term co-pay, and raising the minimum award level.

"When eligibility mirrors characteristics of college-going students, the programs can help with affordability but do not necessarily entice more students to enroll in college nor support students in sufficient ways to raise graduation rates," the report reads.

Future reports will look at how those changes affect the Oregon Promise program, but some legislators are already looking at other ways to help students pay for college. The Oregonian reported that state lawmakers might consider legislation to phase out that free community college program and target financial aid to low-income students instead.