What Promise Programs Tell Us about Free College

October 5, 2016

By Carrie Warick, Director of Policy and Advocacy

How will a free college program affect low-income students? New America's Iris Palmer and Kim Dancy used the Kalamazoo Promise, the first place-based scholarship promising free college for all, to examine Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s proposed college affordability plan in a new analysis aiming to answer that question.

In their findings, they state that a free college program, even one capping eligible family participation at income of $125,000, would ultimately provide more benefits to affluent families than low-income families, though low-income students would still benefit.

The Kalamazoo Promise thus far has shown significant results including increased college enrollment of low-income students, and increased degree completion – particularly among bachelor’s degree-holders and a large return on investment. However, Palmer and Dancy concluded that the benefits of the program are not distributed equally. 

When examining the completion rates and dollars spent per student, Palmer and Dancy explain this unequal distribution. Students are able to select the school they attend, meaning the expenditure per student can vary dramatically depending on whether the student enrolls at a 2-year or 4-year school or a public or private school. Length of time enrolled also affects the total scholarship received. Students who received free- or reduced-priced lunch and students of color both received far less per student than their affluent and/or white peers, who are more likely to attend private, 4-year institutions. 

Kalamazoo is fortunate that the anonymous endowment establishing their promise program is robust enough to fund all of these students. But program design is critical, particularly if there are limited funds to use. As we head into this presidential election and next year’s likely reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the cost of college, college affordability, and free college will all remain part of the conversation. At the federal level, it will be much less likely that equally robust funds will be available for every student. Leaders at the federal, state, and local levels must design promise programs and free college policies for maximum impact on low-income and first-generation students and students of color.

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