As the national debate about the prospect of free community college heats toward a boil, state and local College Promise programs continue to expand with a mix of public and private funding aimed to provide debt-free education to students, usually (but not always) gaining bipartisan support along the way in an age when that’s ever more a unicorn.
According to a report from the Century Foundation, 16 states have at least one statewide program, eight of which started in 2017, and two states had two different versions of these programs. In addition, dozens of local areas and campuses had enacted programs.
But while these programs are relatively easy to explain, given that they address concerns about rising college costs and steeper climbs to affordability, that doesn’t mean the money to fund them is easy to find — so states (and local efforts) often have tough choices to make about their size and scope, the foundation wrote. Often described as “universal,” these programs more than likely ration the benefit and/or reserve it for certain populations.
Most states aim their programs at full-time students and/or recent high school graduates, which excludes many nontraditional students, and most provide “last dollar” funding, which means students must first use Pell grants and other financial aid. Some limit eligibility by income, although most of the recent state efforts do not. A few require in-state residency after graduation, and some specifically target high-demand fields, the report says.
The Century Foundation made several recommendations to the more than a dozen states it predicted would consider statewide proposals in 2018: target their limited investments to those with the most need, skip merit requirements and post-college residency requirements, include nontraditional and undocumented students, and “keep it simple” to ensure that students understand all of their options.
A leading advocacy group for efforts to make the first two years of college as universal and free as high school, called the College Promise Campaign, counts 19 states and 230 local efforts, although Executive Director Martha Kanter notes that a more inclusive database at the University of Pennsylvania lists more than 300. She sees community colleges as a “fantastic starting point” for such efforts given their affordability and the fact that most students attend two-year colleges within 50 miles of home.
Most College Promise programs are funded through a combination of public and private investment, with sources including school districts, community college foundations, taxes on high-priced real estate, chambers of commerce, Rotary clubs and the United Way, Kanter says.
“We’re hopeful the federal government might do something” about free two-year colleges, she says. “But we have a lot of lessons to learn about what states and communities are doing, and that’s our focus.”
College Promise programs have received bipartisan support in states ranging from blue New York to red Tennessee and everywhere in between, Kanter says. “Each state is really different, but they all need a well-trained workforce,” she says. “People are realizing that education is the gateway to a prosperous democracy.”
Community colleges getting involved in such efforts should start small, pilot test and go from there, making sure they have trusted partners at the table like trustees, college presidents, business and nonprofits leaders, philanthropists, faculty and students, Kanter says. And they need to ensure that leadership is sustainable. “Who’s going to lead the promise forward so that it stays a promise, and not just a great idea?” she says.
Keeping it local
One of the granddaddies of all such programs is the Kalamazoo Promise, a privately and anonymously funded 12-year-old effort that has helped close to 5,000 students, including 1,400 during the upcoming semester. Available to all graduates of Kalamazoo Public Schools, the Kalamazoo Promise covers four years of tuition and mandatory fees, up to a bachelor’s degree or 130 credit hours. Those enrolling at Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC) may attend part-time.
Von Washington, Jr., former principal of Kalamazoo Central High School who now serves as executive director of community relations for The Kalamazoo Promise, says about one-third of recipients attend KVCC, one-third attend nearby Western Michigan University and one-third go elsewhere in the state or beyond. Several community colleges receive Promise students, he adds, but KVCC is the predominant one.
Bob Jorth, executive director of the Kalamazoo Promise, says students have attended about 40 different colleges and universities on Promise scholarships, which have totaled about $110 million to date, somewhat disproportionately toward those attending universities simply because they cost more. In a typical year, more than 90 percent of Kalamazoo Public School’s roughly 700 graduates are eligible.
Washington believes it’s no coincidence that enrollment at Kalamazoo Public Schools has grown by 24 percent since the Promise began, after losing about 100 students per year before then.
“That stopped (the student loss) dead in its tracks,” he says. “A number of community agencies and individuals have taken up the mission to make sure Promise students are successful, to make sure they have the foundation and skills to be able to utilize it to the best of their ability.”
Jorth notes that 95 percent of Kalamazoo graduates start college, and while only half finish, he says, “In a school district with 70 percent free and reduced lunch, we think that’s pretty amazing.”
In addition to wanting to boost completion, he cites challenges like the one-quarter of high school students who do not receive a diploma, and the achievement gap between white students and those of color, the former of whom are twice as likely, statistically, to finish college.
Among other challenges The Kalamazoo Promise has faced: nearly 1,500 of the 6,000 students who have enrolled did not finish their degrees, despite the fact that they are given 10 years to use the money.
“Life gets in the way for a number of people,” Washington says. “Most of us think if we had this opportunity, we would take advantage of it. But if I was poor yesterday and I got the scholarship today, I would still be poor.”
The Kalamazoo Promise and its partners work person by person to provide what assistance they can in areas like housing, transportation and food insecurity, he adds. “Students have challenges,” he says. “We also know we have a community that is willing and has the opportunity and resources to try to relieve those challenges.”
Dennis Bertch, executive vice president for instructional and student success services at KVCC, says the college has in recent years improved its retention and completion rates after putting into place “new and different types of developmental offerings” aimed at Promise students. He estimates that about 500 Promise students are enrolled at KVCC at any one time.
“I think we’re on a pathway now that we’re seeing better success,” he says.