Century Foundation Scholar Releases Report on The Future of Statewide College Promise Programs
In the past few years, dozens of states, localities, and schools have proposed or enacted “free college” policies, also known as College Promise programs. While a handful of states have run Promise-like programs for decades, the 2014 launch of the Tennessee Promise and the Obama administration’s focus on the concept catalyzed several states to pursue their own versions of a statewide free or debt-free college proposal:
- A total of sixteen states now have at least one statewide Promise program, with two states running two different versions of a Promise program.1
- Of those sixteen states, ten have enacted and funded a Promise program since 2014, with eight states enacting a Promise program in 2017 alone.2
These numbers make it clear that, after decades of decline in the percentage of state budgets going to higher education,3 Promise programs are becoming an increasingly common pathway for states to pursue urgently needed new—though frequently narrow—investments in higher education.
Often spurred by a broader desire to grow state economies and provide greater access to economic mobility and financial security for their residents, policymakers pursue two policy goals when designing statewide Promise programs: (1) to address a growing concern around rising college costs and student debt burdens felt by a wide swath of students, and (2) to capture the positive effect that a clear affordability message can have on spurring college attendance amongst students who might not otherwise enroll, or who might qualify for aid but not realize it. Because Promise programs are easy to explain, and might reach more people and a wider political constituency than typical financial aid programs, they also have the potential to build levels of public support similar to those held by universal public benefits like K–12 education.4And finally, it is worth noting that some policymakers have begun to include requirements in Promise programs in order to pursue objectives less directly related to the core goals of financial aid or college affordability measures.
The specific policy design choices made by policymakers, combined with the level of funding allocated, will ultimately impact how well they meet those core goals. Promise programs have spurred states to make welcome investments in higher education, though these initial first steps have often been small.