Plausible Promises?

"Promise program" scholarships are appealing to cities and counties looking to boost their local educational achievement. But it's too early to say for sure that the programs work.

April 7, 2015

Nearly a decade after the Kalamazoo Promise launched to nationwide buzz, the fanfare around promise programs has remained strong. Several cities, large and small, are considering launching their own versions of the programs -- in which they pledge help for their residents to pay for college -- while the national attention on free community college can be traced back to the model founded in Kalamazoo, Mich. 

But despite the enthusiasm and positive anecdotes surrounding the promise program model, there's little research showing how effective and sustainable the fairly new movement is over the long term.

“Most of the replication of this model is kind of being done on a gut feeling that it’s a good idea, rather than empirical data that it’s a good idea,” said Michelle Miller-Adams, a fellow at the Michigan-based W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment, who studies promise programs.

So far, few programs have had to walk back on the promises they’ve made to students, and it doesn’t appear that any have altogether foundered. But with only a few years under their belts, the programs are still very much in the growth and development stage.

Promise programs are place-based scholarships, generally tied to a city or school district, that offer near-universal access. Promise programs are unlike other scholarships, because they also seek to change schools and communities, Miller-Adams said. The programs are long-term, so students know about the potential benefits long before they apply to colleges. The Upjohn Institute's directory lists about 40 programs that meet those requirements.

But under that umbrella, there’s wide variation among the programs. Some, such as the Kalamazoo and El Dorado, Ark., versions, are paid for mainly through one set of wealthy funders. Other programs have to collect a hodgepodge of donors each year, while some zones in Michigan are paid for through tax increment financing.

Many programs restrict the colleges that recipients can attend, tying the money to a single local community college. Others give students money to attend any accredited college in the state or country. Most programs award money based on a sliding scale for how long a student has lived in the area.

That variability makes it difficult to evaluate or research promise programs as a group, Miller-Adams said.

The programs can undoubtedly produce a significant morale boost and generate positive coverage for a school district, Miller-Adams said. But it will take a lot more time to determine whether and how the scale moves on larger goals around closing achievement gaps or improving local economies.

The effects of the programs are likely to change over time, too. After all, part of the fabric of promise programs is that families can plan on having an affordable college option from the time their children start grade school. In theory, the outcomes of the first rounds of scholarship recipients will look different from those who grew up in the "college-going culture" these programs aim to build.

With all these unknowns, there's the risk that stakeholders in these programs may overpromise, Miller-Adams said.

"We caution people to underpromise and overdeliver."

Lottery Program Precedents

If promise program organizers need a cautionary tale, they have to look no farther than similar statewide programs that preceded them.

Beginning with the Georgia Hope Scholarship in the 1990s, a handful of states launched expansive scholarship programs funded through state lotteries. At the time, there was a lot of excitement around the idea of boosting college enrollment with the fortunes made by lotteries, Patricia Melton, executive director of the New Haven Promise, wrote in a blog post on

But as the years passed, a combination of factors put those programs in what Melton calls a “promise pinch.”

“There was a sense of ‘the pot of money is endless,’” Melton said in an interview. “But that’s of course not true.”

College enrollment spiked. State appropriations for colleges fell, driving tuition higher. The economy tanked, meaning people had less disposable income to spend on lottery tickets.

To rein in spending, Georgia and Florida reduced what was covered through the program. The states also tightened requirements to qualify for funding, which some criticized as a way of cutting out the low-income and at-risk students who most need the money. In Georgia, for example, the number of HOPE recipients dropped from 256,938 in the 2010-11 academic year to 178,742 by 2012-13.

In South Carolina, the public is paying for a growing portion -- now more than a third -- of a scholarship program that was supposed to be funded mostly by lottery revenues. And Wisconsin's Covenant Grant Program, modeled as a promise to eighth graders, was phased out starting in 2011, after Republican lawmakers said there wasn’t an identified source of revenue for the program.

These stories should serve as reminders to promise programs that no money source is safe forever, and that program directors have to be wise stewards of money year to year, always on the lookout for fluctuations in economics, enrollment and even politics, Melton said in an interview.

A Case Study

Officials in Peoria, Ill., know all about that year-to-year struggle. The city launched a promise program in 2008, assuring graduates within city limits that they could attend the local Illinois Central College tuition-free. The award amount was tied to the student's length of time living in the city.

But unlike Kalamazoo, the program never had a guaranteed source of money, and it relies on annual fund-raising.

“Everyone who contributes to Peoria Promise each year could say, ‘Well, I don’t want to donate to Peoria Promise anymore,’ and we’d have no funding,” said its director, Sheri McGill.

Since 2008, the cost per credit hour at Illinois Central College has increased 56 percent, from $80 to $125, as a result of shrinking state support.

Enrollment in the program also expanded quickly at first, though McGill said hard data are limited because the program only started handling its own applications last year. Prior to that, it was managed through the college like any other scholarship. Peoria Promise didn’t have a privacy waiver, and so the program couldn't track the progress or outcomes of students who received scholarships. Managing on its own required more money for staff, but it also meant Peoria Promise could see where its money was going.

Those two changes -- increased costs and more autonomy -- led to major changes in how the program awards scholarships. Last month, Peoria Promise announced that it would switch to a tuition reimbursement program.

The calculation for how much students are eligible to receive also is changing. Instead of being based solely on the length of time a student has attended Peoria public schools, points are awarded for residency length, but also for factors such as grade point average, entrance exam scores, extracurricular involvement and attendance rates. Officials removed the program’s 12-credit-per-semester cap and also decided it would pay the tuition of students enrolled part-time, even for those taking just one course.

The new system provides a little more incentive and "skin in the game" for students to do better during their high school years, McGill said.

Likewise, the reimbursement means students will have more incentive to complete courses, since scholarship money will be tied to completion. McGill said the program has paid out an extraordinary amount for classes that students didn't attend regularly, but also didn't drop, so they received a failing grade.

"When we started looking at 'course work attempted' compared to 'course work completed,' it wasn’t a pretty picture," she said. "We really needed students to be more accountable."

McGill said she thinks an endowed fund is a necessity for a program to be truly universal and pay 100 percent tuition without any questions.  

When the Upjohn Institute consults for cities that are considering launching their own programs, they forecast a cost analysis for 10 years. There are a lot of assumptions in those forecasts, including what will happen with tuition, school enrollment and in-migration, Miller-Adams said.

What many communities may not realize, though, is how affordable at least some version of a promise program can be, she said. Last-dollar programs that are tied to a specific community college only pay out what isn’t covered by Pell Grants and other scholarships. (Kalamazoo is a first-dollar program.)

Still, even for those cheaper versions, the ability to raise large amounts of money isn’t uniformly distributed across the country.

In Pittsburgh, even with a generous gift of $100 million over 10 years from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the promise organization still had to come up with $15 million in matching money from the community. It takes resources to raise those sort of resources, said Rodney Andrews, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Texas at Dallas, who focuses on the economics of education.

The promise model also isn’t ideal for any communities experiencing rapid population growth, since costs will grow quickly.

And for being a model for so many programs, the Kalamazoo Promise is actually fairly unusual, Andrews said. The size of the donors’ investment sets Kalamazoo apart. The program also has the Upjohn Institute in the same city to study the program and track its results. Most cities lack the money to pay for such evaluation.  

Early Payoffs

The short-term effects of Kalamazoo’s program are encouraging.

The school district’s enrollment has grown 24 percent, and the number of Advanced Placement courses offered in the district has more than doubled.

An analysis by the local newspaper showed Kalamazoo graduates were more likely than peers from similar demographic groups at other high schools to finish one year of college.

New Haven’s program also has produced some positive signs. The program recently had its first years studied by the RAND Corporation. The results showed a 6 percent increase in college enrollment between 2008 and 2013, along with slight improvements in achievement scores at the high school level.

But even for the oldest of the programs -- Kalamazoo -- six-year college completion rates are available for only a few years’ worth of participants. Bigger-picture questions about the ways in which these programs can lift a community are still hazy, Miller-Adams said.  

One of those larger goals -- spurring local economic development -- is where Andrews grows skeptical.

Numbers so far have shown that students respond to the incentive of promise programs by going to the colleges that are made more affordable because of them. That’s largely public colleges in their home state.

But research also shows college-educated people tend to be more mobile, meaning students who earn a degree actually may be more likely to leave their hometown. Ultimately, those with college degrees are going to go where the best work opportunities are, Andrews said.   

The programs are certainly beneficial for most students, but calculations about whether promise programs benefit a local economy with higher tax revenues or jobs created will take longer to figure out, Andrews said.

While finances may be one of the most obvious challenges, the success of the programs comes down to more than money, Miller-Adams said. The most important characteristic is the engagement and buy-in from the community.

Melton and Andrews made similar remarks, highlighting the importance of marketing the program to the community, building up support services and involving grade-school teachers to ensure students are prepared for college.   

There’s no one formula for success. But programs need those components and a reliable stream of money to support them if they want to develop into something families can count on, Andrews said.

“If not, you have to make some changes to the promise, which sort of defeats the purpose of making a promise.”


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