Delivering on the Promise movement: Q and A with Path to Free College author Michelle Miller-Adams

Michelle Miller-Adams

On April 27, Harvard Education Press released The Path to Free College: In Pursuit of Access, Equity, and Prosperity by Upjohn Institute Senior Researcher Michelle Miller-Adams. An expert on the tuition-free college movement, Miller-Adams has written two prior books on the topic. We posed a series of questions to her on the state of the movement, prospects for a nationwide free-college program and remaining barriers to college and career success.

Q: You’ve written extensively about the Promise movement. Free college is a broader concept. How did your focus evolve as you came to write this book?

Michelle Miller-Adams: This project began with the idea of stepping back from the details of Promise design and impact and taking a high-level look at the free-college movement. That includes the local Promise programs I’ve studied for more than 15 years, as well as statewide Promise programs that have emerged more recently. When I began the book more than three years ago, no one expected that we would now also be talking about a national tuition-free college initiative. These separate strands are linked together by shared concerns around college affordability, equitable access to post-secondary education, and workforce preparedness, but no one had written about them as a movement. It seemed like the right time to take a broader look at what brought us to this “free college moment” and how to deliver on its potential.

Since you wrote Promise Nation in 2015, we’ve had the inaugural classes complete their entire K-12 education with the first-of-its-kind Kalamazoo Promise in place. What do we know now that we didn’t know then?

Rigorous evaluation is challenging and many of the effects of Promise programs take a long time to materialize. Since I wrote Promise Nation, the evaluation literature around the Kalamazoo Promise has grown, thanks to our colleagues here at the Upjohn Institute. One important project investigated the college completion effects of the Promise, showing that this generous, first-dollar scholarship can have a big impact on completion rates.

A second project involves initial research into whether the Kalamazoo Promise has effects on employment, earnings, and location decisions. We have also learned more about the barriers students face to completing a degree, barriers that go beyond finances. The Kalamazoo Promise is working with new energy and resources to support students who began but have not completed a degree or credential. The Promise has also adopted new outreach strategies and policies such as locating Promise Pathways coaches in high schools and raising the number of credits covered by Promise dollars. These changes reflect knowledge gained from both practice and research.

There’s momentum now for free college at the federal level. What are the caveats for scaling up such a program?

As with local and statewide programs, key decisions about eligibility, usage of the scholarship, and how much funding is available will determine how the benefits of such a program are distributed. There is tension, for example, between Biden administration commitments to universal, tuition-free community college on the one hand and a more expansive, tuition-free program that covers four-year degrees for families earning up to $125,000. The narrow Democratic margin in Congress makes more sweeping action politically unrealistic, at least for now, so the administration is leading with the less expensive two-year option, which is still a big step forward. Some of the practical challenges are how to enlist states in the proposed cost-sharing efforts and how to implement a new, federally funded tuition-free college program in states that have already enacted some form of free college.

How do places, especially those that have used Promise programs as an economic and workforce development tool, adapt if higher ed becomes affordable everywhere?

College affordability is a long way off, even with statewide or national free-college plans. Many of the existing statewide programs require students to use their Pell grants first to cover tuition, which leaves them short of resources for living expenses. And any national program is likely, for now, to only cover the two-year sector. So, place-based efforts to provide local students with an affordable path to a degree or credential are still incredibly important. Also, because so much of the effect of Promise programs is as a catalyst that brings local actors into alignment around shared goals, it’s essential that communities remain engaged in this work. For example, recent research shows that without strong employer engagement and clear pathways from higher education into the local workforce, communities miss out on some of the potential economic gains. Creating these connections can only be done locally.

Affording tuition is one barrier to attending and completing college and getting the good jobs a college degree can lead to. Removing that single barrier allows us to see the remaining barriers more clearly. What did we learn?

We learned that students face barriers beyond affording college and new, complementary strategies are needed to address these. For some students, especially first-generation college-goers, that barrier may be a lack of “college knowledge.” These students will need help navigating the college application and financial aid process and may need support once they enroll at a higher ed institution. For other students, it may be more a matter of needing a better understanding of their career interests and aptitude, and help finding the right fit in terms of a post-secondary program. Still other students will continue to struggle with family responsibilities, health issues, the need to work a full-time job while enrolled, and emergencies that arise. These students will benefit from new types of financial support, including emergency grants, as well as the flexibility to “stop out” of post-secondary education and then be able to return. To reduce racial inequity, it is important for such programs to offer a wide range of post-secondary options and not to limit eligibility by academic performance; criteria like these screen out low-income students, including many students of color.

Beyond Kalamazoo, what are some broad lessons you have learned in your 15 years of research?

Three lessons show up again and again:

1) Money matters. Generous free-college programs, like the Kalamazoo Promise and a handful of others, have moved the needle on both college enrollment and degree completion because they bring substantial new resources to students.

2) But money is not enough. If the goal is to reach first-generation, low-income college-goers, many of whom are Black or Latino, there needs to be serious attention paid to supporting those students, first as they navigate their way to college and then as they pursue a degree or credential. Unfortunately, support services are often under-resourced in many existing Promise programs.

3) Finally, simplicity is your friend when you are designing a Promise program, especially if you want people to understand it and use it. A good deal of the impact of existing free-college programs comes through the message, delivered early and often, that college is affordable and an investment worth making. To deliver this message, programs need to keep extraneous requirements to a minimum and be easy to talk about.

Path to Free College cover

The Path to Free College: In Pursuit of Access, Equity, and Prosperity is available for preorder from local and national booksellers .

The Upjohn Institute's initiative Promise: Investing in Community brings together Promise scholarship research with economic development policies that target local job creation.


Michelle Miller-Adams headshot

Michelle Miller-Adams

Senior Researcher

Research Topics: Promise Programs