To address workforce shortages, economic disruptions and shifting demographics, state policymakers have expanded and created new financial aid programs to help students pursue a postsecondary degree or credential of value. Among these initiatives are college promise programs, also known as free-college or free-tuition programs, that offer students the chance to attend college tuition-free.
All fifty states have at least one local or statewide program, according to College Promise, a national advocacy organization that supports promise programs. Several states have enacted statewide promise programs in recent years, and a variety of local philanthropy groups also support these efforts. As states consider expansion or modification of promise programs, the following approaches and examples offer a guide to how policymakers have addressed these programs in the past.
Who Is Eligible?
As states design financial aid programs, including promise scholarships, structuring program eligibility can drive substantial shifts in policy outcomes. This process generally begins by determining which student populations will be served by the program. Broadly speaking, most promise programs target recent high school graduates from the state and impose a state residency or diploma requirement. The residency requirements sometimes exclude undocumented students. While the majority of programs aim to serve graduating high school students, in recent years several states have created or expanded a “reconnect” model that aims to serve adult learners, many of whom are returning to postsecondary education.
Many states also add additional academic performance requirements, such as GPA upon application or satisfactory academic progress either before the application or while enrolled in postsecondary education. These features mean promise programs often resemble an extension of a state merit-based financial aid scholarship, although most states also have income caps and limitations that resemble needs-based scholarships. Some states also require full-time enrollment, community service or mentorship duties as conditions for the scholarship.
What Institutions Can Students Attend?
The majority of statewide promise programs apply to community and technical colleges, not four-year universities. Community colleges continue to be an important educational and economic engine, producing more than 1 million associate degrees in the 2021-22 school year. Yet, community college enrollment has fallen faster than enrollment at four-year institutions, declining by more than 16% since 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. A 2020 study, however, found that promise programs boosted first-time, full-time enrollments at community colleges.
While associate degrees tend to be shorter-term, workforce-targeted programs with strong return on investment for learners, bachelor’s degrees still offer stronger economic returns. Learners with a bachelor’s degree earn more than $19,000 more annually than students whose highest credential is an associate degree, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Additional data from Third Way, shows that 95% of students who earn a bachelor’s recoup the net cost of obtaining that degree, while just 79% of associate degree holders and 48% of certificate holders recoup those costs.
What Costs Are Covered?
In the 2022-23 school year, listed yearly tuition and fees totaled $10,940 at public four-year institutions and $3,860 at two-year institutions. Most statewide promise programs offer financial aid to cover these costs, yet many function as last-dollar programs in which scholarship funding is available only after other existing state and federal aid (including Pell grants) is applied. Leveraging existing financial aid programs offers cost-savings for last-dollar promise scholarships.
However, last-dollar funding offers students less financial aid and may limit the ability of students to cover additional costs of attendance. For many students, additional costs of attendance may equal or exceed tuition and fee expenses. Average room and board costs range from $9,000-$12,000 per year at public institutions. Books and supplies average $1,200 per year. Transportation and child care costs can also strain student budgets. These additional costs, which individually are often less than $1,000, are a main cause of low-income students failing to complete a degree or credential.