When I was in grade school, no promise held as much weight as a pinky promise. It was a sign of determination to fulfill whatever pledge passed through my lips.
Delivering on a promise is no less important as an adult. And while I am not aware of any legislators or funders who have threatened to break the fingers of those implementing free College Promise programs, I believe delivering on these commitments might be the most important promise colleges can keep.
College Promise programs are sweeping the country. From efforts started over a decade ago in Kalamazoo, Michigan to Tennessee’s statewide program, the idea of providing free college education as the next step after high school is gaining momentum.
The need for promise programs is clear: College has become unaffordable for many families, even with the support of financial aid. At the same time, our labor markets demand a highly educated workforce, with two-thirds of jobs requiring at least some postsecondary education according to Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Yet graduation rates have remained dismally low, hovering around 20% in public two-year colleges.
The problem is that promise programs without specific strategies and metrics to improve student success outcomes are simply access programs. And while access is a noble and necessary goal, it's not sufficient by itself. Our collective aspiration should be for students to cross the finish line, not just start.
Promise programs as a beacon of hope during tight financial times
College Promise programs exist in 44 states, including 16 statewide programs, according to Complete College America. Given widespread enrollment declines, many colleges hope promise programs will help them meet their enrollment targets. In fact, this has been the case in many parts of the country.
For example, Tennessee saw a 25% increase in first-time community college freshmen the year Tennessee Promise was enacted. Similarly, Rhode Island Promise yielded a 50% increase in enrollment in 2017. In Oregon, enrollment was so high, the state quickly imposed income restrictions to sustain the program.
But solving the enrollment challenge doesn’t necessarily mean that completion rates will change, and therein lies the problem. College Promise programs have expanded quickly partly because of the emphasis of the price for many students: zero. Built with a focus on providing free access to students who are unable to afford postsecondary education, many programs include requirements for students to maintain their awards, but few give colleges operational advice to deliver the support students’ needs to maintain eligibility.
For example, in Tennessee—one of longest standing large-scale programs—promise students must attend full-time, maintain a 2.0 GPA, and volunteer in the community to qualify. While their first cohort of students saw graduation and transfer rates 17 percentage points higher than students outside the promise program, what would be possible if the same kinds of requirements were placed on colleges to ensure an environment that delivers on student success? Promise programs remove one barrier—funding—but colleges must design programs for student success and communicate to students the expectations for success they must fulfill.
The risk of not making the necessary changes extends to colleges, funders, and—most importantly—students. In other words, the message must shift from "free, easy access to college" to "access to free college programs designed for student success."
Complete College America, College Promise, and Achieving the Dream collaborated to establish standards for completion presented in "Promise with a Purpose: College Promise Programs ‘Built for Completion.’" This publication explains the problem at hand, offers recommended strategies for implementing successful promise programs, and delivers evidence that their standards work. This unique approach includes specific suggestions for each group of stakeholders: students, colleges, and funders (typically state or local legislators).
Technology can provide the infrastructure for a successful promise program
Colleges must proactively collect and respond to data to effectively convert improved college access to improved graduation rates. Technology can provide a more holistic view of each student and the overall health of the entire student population. Predictive analytics, holistic care, and case management are necessary features of any student success strategy that serves new student populations.
The promises (and perils) of student success predictive modeling
These technologies keep students on track and allow advisors to proactively engage with students during pivotal moments in their student experiences. What’s more, they empower college administrators to understand what is happening with students, intervene as necessary, and report out on student outcomes.
In order to deliver on our promise, student success efforts must be powered by technology. For students to succeed, they need to be on structured academic pathways and have a comprehensive care network ready to support them.
College Promise programs provide greater access to prospective students who can help meet the skills gap facing our labor market. However, establishing recommendations for students, standards for accountability, and measurement of outcomes is essential for converting increased enrollment to higher graduation rates. This should be our ultimate goal, and a worthy of a pinky promise.