While states and localities are increasingly adopting Promise scholarships to make college more affordable for lower-income Americans, not all of them are as effective as they can be.
Milwaukee’s Degree Project, for example, did not meet its expectations – to get more lower-income students into and through college – primarily because of the way it was designed, according to a new study from the Brookings Institution. The 10-year study is one of the first randomized control trials of a Promise program.
The Degree Project was launched by Milwaukee Public Schools in 2011. Students in 18 randomly selected high schools were promised up to $12,000 to pay for college at any Wisconsin institution. Those funds would cover two years of tuition and fees at a community college or a little over one year at a four-year college.
To be eligible, students had to graduate on time from a Milwaukee public high school with a cumulative GPA of at least 2.5 and a 90 percent attendance rate and apply for federal student aid.
“The Degree Project had some impact on students’ motivation, college expectations and steps toward college, such as applying to more colleges and FAFSA completion,” the study found. “However, it had no effect on the performance measures and no effect on whether students went directly to college.”
The scholarships “may have slightly increased persistence and graduation in two-year colleges, though not in four-year colleges,” it adds.
While researchers are continuing to track the program’s impact, “it seems clear at this point that many of the potential benefits, during and just after high school, did not emerge.”
The study cites three related reasons for the lower-than-expected outcomes:
- Performance requirements were so high that they greatly reduced the number of students who could plausibly receive the funds.
- Performance requirements, combined with the temporary, small-scale design, meant that the program did not have the catalyzing effect on high schools that similar programs have seen.
- The context in Milwaukee was not conducive to the success of a performance-based aid program. The school system did not make a college preparation curriculum broadly available, did not offer robust counseling and did not have a strong college-going culture.
Avoid performance requirements
The results are still positive, in terms of providing important lessons for policymakers, says principal investigator Douglas Harris, an economics professor and the Schleider Foundation chair in public education at Tulane University (Lousiana), who spoke on a panel that accompanied the release of the study.
The stringent performance requirements in the Degree Project were aimed at rewarding students who have the best chance of succeeding in college and, therefore, the smallest likelihood of dropping out with debt.
“But the result is essentially the opposite,” the report concludes. “Performance requirements reduce the number of college graduates more than they reduce the number who drop out with debt.”
The researchers found no evidence that the performance requirements induced students to study harder in high school and prepare academically for college. Instead, the main effect of performance requirements “is to provide more funds to higher-income families, which only reinforces existing disparities.”
They also recommend that policymakers use free college and other forms of financial aid to encourage changes in high schools. Rather than focus narrowly on making college more affordable for individual students, the researchers call for leveraging the funds to make college a viable option for most high school students.
The big picture
Promise programs provide “enormous potential,” says panelist Zakiya Smith Ellis, New Jersey’s secretary of higher education, but only if students get the message that they won’t have to pay tuition or fees if they go to community college. While it’s important to target funds to lower-income students, universal programs get more political support, Ellis notes.
Beth Akers, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, questioned whether Promise programs are an efficient way to spend public money if well-off students are most likely to benefit. It might be more effective to help students with extra money for gas and food, she says.
Martha Kanter, executive director of the College Promise Campaign and former U.S. undersecretary of education, recommends supplementing Promise scholarships with extra funds for living expenses and urges community colleges to set up food banks, provide transportation funds and form partnerships with universities to make transferring more affordable.
Look at the big picture, Kanter says. Promise programs that provide incentives for more students to attain a college credential not only provide economic benefits, in terms of higher salaries and more tax revenue, she says. There are also social benefits, such as safer communities, less reliance on subsidies and higher levels of health and happiness.