As researchers focusing on issues of employment and education, we have been studying the impact of free college since the Kalamazoo Promise was announced just over nine years ago.
The President’s plan parallels the Kalamazoo Promise in important aspects, making the well‐researched Kalamazoo experience highly relevant to the debate about to begin in Congress. Clearly, low‐income and first generation college students face many barriers to higher education: adequate funding is just one hurdle.
Our research shows, however, that reducing those financial barriers indisputably increases the number of young people attending post‐secondary institutions, progressing through school, and completing degrees or certificates. The president’s program was modeled in part on the Tennessee Promise, an initiative announced last year by Republican Governor Bill Haslam that makes community college free for all Tennessee high school graduates beginning in 2015. The Tennessee Promise, in turn, was inspired by the Kalamazoo Promise and a growing number of other place‐based scholarship programs in places as diverse as El Dorado, Arkansas and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In an important regard, the President’s plan differs from the Tennessee Promise and takes a lesson from Kalamazoo. Like many other scholarship programs, the Tennessee Promise is a “last‐dollar” program, meaning that funds are awarded after other sources of student loan financing are received. This structure has the unintended effect of benefiting middle‐income more than low‐income students, especially in the case of community colleges where federal financial aid in the form of Pell grants covers the full cost of community college.
By contrast, one of the best aspects of the President’s plan is that the tuition funding would be awarded first, making it possible for low‐income students to use their Pell grants to support living costs, thereby reducing the number of hours worked and making it possible for them to focus on their education. The Kalamazoo Promise pioneered this innovation, but only one other Promise program among the states has adopted it to date.
Even more critically, our research into the impact of Promise programs has shown that money alone is not the answer. In Kalamazoo and elsewhere, it has become clear that local community colleges must be ready to accommodate an influx of students, many of them low‐income or first‐generation college‐goers who often require extra support at the post‐secondary level. Supporting new students will also make new demands on local K‐12 school districts and community‐based organizations. The academic expectations of community colleges must be clearly articulated to K‐12 district leadership so that the transition from high school to college is smooth and students can avoid having to spend time and money on developmental or remedial courses. We call this community alignment, and it is a critical element in the success of any scholarship program.
The president’s proposal improves on the Tennessee model in several respects. Importantly, students may attend half‐time. In Kalamazoo, we have found that part‐time attendance can ease the transition to college for students who may not be fully prepared. It is also far‐sighted that the free community college tuition under the president’s proposal applies not only to recent high school graduates, as the Chicago and Tennessee programs do, but also to adults who can benefit from going back to college. Just as the GI Bill in the 1940s dramatically expanded the proportion of young people attending college, laying the groundwork for the U.S. economy’s dynamic growth in the 1950s and 1960s, so does expanded access to community college for recent graduates and adults in need of greater human capital could help businesses assemble the globally competitive workforce of the 21st century.
We are at an exciting moment for college access, as a multitude of initiatives at the national, state, and local levels converge to expand opportunity, promote attainment, and reduce the cost of higher education. Some of the most innovative developments are taking place at the very local level, where place‐based scholarships like the Kalamazoo Promise are reshaping school districts, towns, and cities throughout the nation. They are an example of grassroots responses to local needs that is one of the great strengths of our policymaking framework. The president’s announcement provides much‐needed national leadership to move forward these multiple efforts. We hope that Congress will now join in, providing the resources needed for this investment in the nation’s economic future.