Promise scholarships get graduates into good jobs—if the jobs are there

Male teacher cautions male student/Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

Free-tuition "Promise" college scholarships can get more graduates into high-paying jobs, new research finds. One catch: those jobs may be out of state if there aren't enough job opportunities nearby.

The Upjohn Institute's Brad Hershbein presented research on workforce effects of the Kalamazoo Promise at a virtual conference April 23. The Upjohn Institute and the Campaign for Free College Tuition sponsored the conference, "The Workforce Impacts of Tuition-Free College Programs" (archived video).

Announced in 2005, the Kalamazoo Promise was the first of its kind and spawned a new generation of generous place-based college scholarships. Looking at Kalamazoo Public Schools graduates before and after the Promise took effect, Hershbein and coauthors matched individuals' wage records from Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency to compare employment and earnings. The results were mixed, with no evident effect of the Promise on employment but modest effects on earnings.

Seven to 10 years after their respective graduations, Kalamazoo Promise-eligible graduates were no more likely to be employed than those who weren't eligible for the Promise. Promise graduates had a small, but not statistically significant, increase in average earnings.

However, average earnings don't paint a clear picture of the range of workers’ earning levels. So the researchers set a benchmark, $6,000 to $10,000 per quarter$24,000 to $40,000 annuallyto see whether eligibility for the Promise made graduates more likely to clear that mark.

It did. The Promise increased, from about 73 percent to about 78 percent, the likelihood that people working seven to 10 years after graduation had quarterly earnings above $7,000.

Promise graduates were also more likely to stay within 20 miles of Kalamazoo. Many, however, left the state, including some of the strongest students.

In interviews, Promise graduates who left Michigan indicated that good jobs often weren't available close by. Taken with the modest effect of the Promise on earnings for those who stayed, Hershbein and coauthors Isabel McMullen, Brian Pittelko and Bridget Timmeney conclude communities need better nearby job opportunities for Promise programs to fulfill their workforce and economic development potential. 

The presentation is one of several new research products stemming from ongoing Upjohn Institute efforts to understand various aspects of the Kalamazoo Promise and other free-college programs.

  • A new policy paper, "How College Enrollment Changed for Kalamazoo Promise Students Between Fall 2019 and Fall 2020," details the falloff in Promise graduates enrolling in community college during the pandemic. The paper, from Daniel Collier, Isabel McMullen and Hershbein describes unequal effects of the pandemic on Black and White students and identifies challenges for the Promise proponents seeking to address racial inequity.
  • On Tuesday, April 27, the Upjohn Institute's Michelle Miller-Adams releases The Path to Free College, her third book on the Promise movement. The book examines the history, influence and unintended consequences of the movement and its relationship to college access, affordability, and workforce readiness. Read a Q and A with Miller-Adams.

The conference also featured research presentations on the Pittsburgh Promise and Knox Achieves (Tennessee) programs, a roundtable with Promise experts, and opening remarks from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. View the archived conference.


Brad J. Hershbein headshot

Brad J. Hershbein

Senior Economist and Deputy Director of Research
Brian Pittelko headshot

Brian Pittelko

Senior Research Analyst, Regional
Bridget Timmeney headshot

Bridget Timmeney

Senior Project Consultant

Research Topics: Promise Programs