• Joanne Jacobs

College is free — but how many earn degrees?

Free college is politically popular, but may not improve graduation rates, conclude Brookings researchers on Chalkboard. It depends on how the program is designed.

Their study analyzed Milwaukee’s Degree Project, which was launched in 2011.


The Kalamazoo Promise is credited with raising college graduation rates, but Milwaukee’s Degree Project has had little effect. Photo: Neil Austell/Kalamazoo Gazette


Students at 18 randomly selected high schools could receive up to $12,000 for tuition at an in-state college, enough to pay the full cost of a two-year degree, or more than a year at a four-year institution. Students had to graduate on time with a 2.5 GPA and 90 percent attendance.

Researchers compared what happened with the outcomes at 18 high schools where students weren’t offered scholarships.

Results were disappointing. While students offered the scholarship applied to more colleges, there was no effect on whether they enrolled. There was no effect on grades, attendance or graduation rates. At best, the scholarship “may have slightly increased persistence and graduation in two-year colleges, though not in four-year colleges.”

Why not? Most students didn’t qualify for the scholarship, conclude researchers, who suggest dropping the performance requirements.

MPS high schools were not set up to make college a viable option for most students. The schools did not make a college prep curriculum or structured supports broadly available, or expect most students to attend college. . . . In short, for free college to fulfill its potential, policymakers need to leverage it to change high schools.

“Promise” programs try to motivate educational achievement, but the design matters, writes Meredith Billings, also on Chalkboard.

The success of the Kalmazoo Promise, which boosted college enrollment and degree completion, inspired many newer programs, she writes. Those that changed the design have not duplicated Kalamazoo’s success.

“Promise” scholarships and free-college programs are spreading nationally, reports Hechinger’s Jill Barshay.

One University of Pennsylvania study published in April 2018 counted 289 similar programs around the country as of November 2016, many of them newly established in 2016. . . . Fifteen states currently operate some version of a free tuition program, according to a September 2018 count by The Education Trust, a nonprofit group that conducts research and advocates for low-income students. Another 11 states are considering proposals to enact them.

There’s a lot of variation in the programs, Barshay writes. “Some just cover two-year community colleges, others four-year institutions as well. Some only give assistance to low-income students, others only to students who meet certain academic thresholds and others to a combination of those with need and merit.”

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