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December 15, 2020

Recognizing the Implications of Promise Program Design for Equity and Efficiency

This blog post is part of a series of introductions for our College Promise Policy Briefs, which aim to critically analyze Promise related research and program experiences in order to offer recommendations for actions or evidence-based policies to leaders of the College Promise movement.

This week, Dr. Laura Perna, Jeremy Wright-Kim, and Elaine W. Leigh from the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (AHEAD) write about their recently published paper “Recognizing the Implications of Promise Program Design for Equity and Efficiency”.

In the face of excessive student loan debt and the ever-rising cost of college, College Promise programs have emerged across the United States as policies for improving college access and affordability. They do this by providing a financial award that reduces costs of attendance, a clear and consistent message that college is affordable, and other supports that enable students to enroll in college and progress to degree completion. Although improving educational attainment is a clearly worthy goal, each Promise is unique with outcomes that vary greatly from program to program. Although research conducted has explored how Promise programs influence student outcomes, few studies have probed how program design and resource investments influence program outcomes, equity, and efficiency.

Our research team addressed this knowledge gap by drawing on case studies of programs that offer free tuition to attend four community colleges. Using the Penn AHEAD College Promise database, we selected six Promise programs operating in different state, local, and institutional contexts to examine. Using a combination of publicly available information and data gathered from multi day interviews, we produced a case report for each institution and then engaged in cross-case analyses.

Our study suggests that, when designing and implementing Promise programs, stakeholders should recognize that:

  • Promise programs can influence outcomes for both students who are eligible for the program and students who are ineligible.
  • Whether and how programs influence outcomes for different students depend on program eligibility requirements and resource investments.
  • Eligibility criteria can have implications for equity and efficiency.
  • Program resources include not only the financial award but also personnel, facilities, and materials.
  • Investing in personnel and other supports may improve equity and efficiency by enabling students to meet eligibility requirements and helping students to remain enrolled and complete their educational programs.

Our findings shed light on how program design and resource investments may influence educational outcomes, efficiency, and equity. We found that Promise programs can influence outcomes such as high school graduation and college enrollment, persistence, and success for both students who do and do not meet eligibility criteria.

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