Students in free college program about 33% more likely to graduate

Eligible students also more likely to enroll in four-year institutions

The promise of free or affordable college increases college enrollment and success, according to a new study from the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Michigan. 

Researchers looked at the more than 3,800 students who have attended college on the approximately $66 million in "Kalamazoo Promise" scholarship funds donated by anonymous sources.

In 2006, the first class of high school seniors benefited from the Promise, which enables all district high school graduates who began in the district before ninth grade to receive 65% to 100% of college tuition. The amount varies based on how long they have attended Kalamazoo schools.

What free college can't fix

The funds are viable at any public institution in Michigan—and as of this year may be used at 15 private schools as well. The money must be used within 10 years of high school graduation.

By comparing scholarship-eligible students with their ineligible peers—and those who came before Promise—researchers found that the first cohort was about one-third more likely to earn a higher education degree or credential within six years of high school graduation.

Additionally, eligible students were 14% more likely to enroll in any college within six months of graduating high school—and chances of enrolling in a four-year institution jumped by 34%.

The benefits varied a bit by racial demographics, but all groups benefited. Among black students, 23% of the Promise-eligible completed college compared with just 16% of non-eligible individuals. For white students, 43% of those eligible graduated, compared with 40% of non-eligible students.

Free tuition may not be enough to improve access to degrees

While the program only addresses the financial barrier to college, it did affect the way some students viewed college. 

"It definitely changed high school and how seriously I took it," says recipient LaTasha James, who earned a bachelor's degree from Western Michigan University this spring.

However, James says she and others faced challenges beyond tuition. Despite beginning at a community college, she still had to take time off school to work full time to pay for her living expenses.

"The Promise is an awesome jumping off point... but there's still work to be done, for sure," she says (Khadaroo, Christian Science Monitor, 6/25).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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