How Free College Programs Can Increase Equity in Our Schools

As someone who has studied free-college Promise programs for over a decade, I read with interest the recent Education Trust report on equity in free-college efforts. While the report quite rightly raises concerns about how Promise programs affect low-income students, it misses the ways in which even limited free-college programs transform how students think about college and how K-12 schools support them. In a recent column for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sara Goldrick-Rab and I argue that focusing narrowly on who gets the money neglects the broader benefits of free-college programs. Tuition-free college initiatives, often called Promise programs, do not just award scholarships. They also change incentives and belief systems for many different stakeholders along the college pathway.
  • When K-12 students and teachers know that financial barriers to college have been reduced, teachers are more likely to encourage all their students to explore postsecondary options, and students are more likely to take them seriously.
  • When colleges and universities see new groups of students apply for and enter their institutions, they innovate to provide them with support.
  • When businesses see large groups of young people getting new skills, they engage more deeply with local school districts and colleges.
  • When community members understand that Promise programs are changing their communities, they are motivated to step up and support student success.
In short, college Promise programs can be transformative, not just for students and families but also for schools and communities.

Free College and Equity

K-12 districts are among the first and largest beneficiaries of locally based college Promise programs. We have seen this happen in my hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan, home of the Kalamazoo Promise. The Kalamazoo Promise is one of the nation’s earliest and most generous free-college programs and one that has been closely watched for more than a decade. Because the Kalamazoo Promise is local, not state-based, it was not discussed in Ed Trust’s report. It also is one of the very few programs that allow students to use their Promise dollars first, not last, freeing up Pell money to help low-income students pay for expenses beyond tuition. Nonetheless, the Kalamazoo Promise shows how reducing financial barriers to college for a broad segment of a community’s young people can change mindsets and improve students’ K-12 experiences. The Kalamazoo Promise has stimulated positive change in the Kalamazoo Public Schools—a district of around 13,000 that serves the region’s urban core and most of its poor and non-White students. This positive change has occurred in three areas: enrollment, achievement and school climate or culture. After decades of decline, enrollment in Kalamazoo Public Schools has increased by almost 25 percent since the Kalamazoo Promise was implemented in 2006. Higher enrollment has brought new financial resources, expanded programming and predictable budgeting. It is worth noting that much of this enrollment increase has occurred not because new families moved in, but because established families chose to stay put—meaning that the Kalamazoo Promise is strengthening long-term attachment to the school district and the broader community. Research shows that the introduction of the Kalamazoo Promise led to higher GPAs for African-American students and a decline in suspensions across the board. Scores on standardized tests have risen at a faster rate than in comparison districts, while graduation rates have edged up steadily. In 2018, the Kalamazoo Public Schools graduated 52 percent more students than it did in the year before the Kalamazoo Promise was announced. Changes in school climate have been dramatic. From ramping up family-based early literacy programs, to college visits for every sixth grader, to rising Advanced Placement enrollment, Kalamazoo Public Schools is building a college-going culture at every grade level. The community has also stepped up, offering tutoring, mentoring and basic needs supports to ensure that non-academic barriers do not prevent students from accessing their scholarships. All these changes have culminated in higher rates of college enrollment, with 90 percent of Promise-eligible graduates starting college. (College retention and degree completion rates have also risen, but that is a topic for another post.) In short, thanks to the Kalamazoo Promise, the Kalamazoo Public Schools has been transformed into a higher-performing school district while serving a similar mix of students. This is just one example of the kind of transformation underway in communities and states around the nation, as tuition-free college catalyzes higher expectations and stronger alignment in support of college-going and success.

K-12 Educators Promote Equity by Seeing All Their Kids as College-Bound

The Education Trust report got a key point right: Many low-income students will not benefit directly from state programs that require them to use their Pell grants before accessing Promise dollars. But experience shows they will benefit from the changes those Promise programs can set in motion, especially within their K-12 school districts. Healthier school districts in more vibrant communities and stronger support along the path to college are among the most meaningful contributions today’s Promise programs can make to the success of low-income and first-generation college students. No matter how a college Promise distributes its dollars, it can also help educators and community members overcome the belief that poor kids and kids of color cannot achieve. K-12 teachers and principals are on the front lines of putting Promise programs into action. By encouraging all their students to take advantage of these opportunities, K-12 educators can help ensure that Promise programs support equity.
Michelle Miller-Adams is a senior researcher at the Upjohn Institute, where she focuses on the national movement to create tuition-free college programs within local communities and states, and she is also a professor at Grand Valley State University. She is the author of the first comprehensive book on the Kalamazoo Promise, "The Power of a Promise: Education and Economic Renewal in Kalamazoo" ...

Join the Movement