In the last few years, the number of free college and college promise programs in the United States has skyrocketed. These programs offer students a financial guarantee to meet tuition and fee gaps not covered by financial aid, with a goal of putting college access financially in reach for low- and middle-income families.
The Detroit Promise, administered by the Detroit Regional Chamber, allows the city’s high school graduates to attend local colleges tuition-free. But the Chamber saw that the scholarship alone was not enough. Too many students were dropping out of school. MDRC and the Chamber partnered to build proven-effective student success components onto the scholarship to make sure the program not only helps students enroll in college but assists them once they get there.
This new program, the Detroit Promise Path, aims to support students all the way to graduation by adding new components to the existing scholarship program: campus coaches who help students navigate academic and personal issues; additional monthly financial support contingent on meeting with coaches; engagement in studies or work during the summer; special messaging informed by behavioral science; and program monitoring through a management information system created by MDRC.
These evidence-based strategies come from MDRC’s experience designing and evaluating community college programs, with a particular focus on institutions serving student populations like Detroit’s. For example, 75 percent of Detroit Promise students do not have a college graduate parent. Students who are first in their families to attend college often need extra support when they enroll since they are navigating uncharted waters. For these students, a trusting relationship with a campus coach is vital. The monthly financial supports, summer engagement, and behavioral messaging further bolster students’ connection to school and to their coach.
Early findings from the evaluation show that the program has a significant positive impact on students’ likelihood of enrollment and especially their likelihood of full-time enrollment: about 40 percent of students randomly selected to receive the extra services enrolled full time in the second semester, whereas only about 25 percent of those receiving scholarships alone enrolled full time.
Since the program launched in fall 2016, we are continuously learning from students’ experiences about how college promise scholarships are — and aren’t — able to help students succeed. One important lesson we’re applying to strengthen the program this year is about financial aid.
You might think that within a college promise program, students wouldn’t face the same financial aid gauntlet that other low-income students do. But in qualitative research we conducted with students, problems with finances — and the financial aid process itself — came up again and again. In fact, of students who initially signed up for the program, but then didn’t enroll in school, nearly 70 percent cited financial aid issues as a reason they didn’t enroll, despite the promise of free college.
For example, many Detroit Promise Path students — like many Pell applicants nationwide — are selected for FAFSA verification and are unable to manage the confusing messages and requirements to resolve it. Students may then be dropped from their classes for nonpayment before school starts while the college awaits their financial aid award. Students also face expenses, such as transportation, that are not covered by financial aid, yet are critical to their ability to attend school.
Although the Detroit Promise Path Demonstration is still in its early stages, one takeaway is already clear: tuition dollars alone aren’t enough to get students to graduate. There are many costs beyond tuition that can hinder a student’s progress. In addition, students can benefit from allies on campus to help them tackle these barriers, financial and otherwise.
If you’re part of a new or existing college promise/free college program, you may want to consider building student support components and additional financial supports into existing scholarship programs, like the Detroit Promise did. At MDRC, we want to make sure that we are sharing our research findings — and what they mean for students — with programs across the country. With support from the Great Lakes Higher Education Foundation, MDRC will provide free intensive technical assistance to a select group of programs through the Promise Success Initiative. Tuition coverage has ensured access to college for thousands of students. Ensuring student success will require a lot more than that.
Alyssa Ratledge is a research analyst at MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that develops and evaluates education and social programs that serve low-income people.