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David B. Monaghan

David B. Monaghan.

“Free college” (sometimes called Promise) programs are common in U.S. higher education. Reviewing 88 studies of 25 state and local programs, I provide a nuanced picture of the mechanisms through which these programs may work and their likely effects on students, communities, and colleges. Some commonly-claimed mechanisms for these effects—e.g., improving secondary school environments or impacting residential decisions—lack empirical support or are implausible for most existing programs. Programs are consistently found to shift college-bound students to colleges where they can use more scholarship dollars, increase enrollment at eligible colleges, and (for generous local programs only) increase community school district enrollment. Less consistently, programs boost college participation and thereby degree attainment, but evidence for direct effects on college performance, persistence or completion net of enrollment is weak. There is insufficient or inconsistent evidence for program effects on secondary school performance and graduation, post-college income and debt, community population or property values, and inequality reduction according to gender, race, or socioeconomic status.

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David B. Monaghan, Crystal Almanzar, Madison Laughman, Allyson Ritchie.

Promise programs are discussed as a policy movement that began with the 2005 launch of the Kalamazoo Promise. Since then, programs bearing the Promise label or sharing similar features have spread across the higher educational landscape, appearing in most states and across postsecondary sectors. Simultaneously, scholarly literature discussing these programs has burgeoned. And yet, scholars and others are unable to formulate a clear conception of what a Promise program is and what if anything sets such a program apart from other scholarship programs (e.g., state need-based grants). In this paper, we examine how scholars have discussed these programs over time. We begin with the initial theorization of the Kalamazoo Promise as a case and observe its use as a prototype in the formulation of a general model once “Promise program” was established as a category. We follow how the spread and transformation of “Promise programs” was reflected in repeated partial reconceptualization. We find three competing conceptual models emerging in sequence: 1) a thick, place-based causal model derived as a generalization of the Kalamazoo Promise, 2) a thin empirical model crafted in the aftermath of the launch of the Tennessee Promise, and 3) a partially acknowledged minimal or symbolic model advanced haltingly in response to critiques of last-dollar community college state programs. Scholarly conceptualization is largely reactive to empirical program diffusion and transformation, though scholarly idealization may have played a role in this diffusion itself.

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Drew M. Anderson, David B. Monaghan, Jed Richardson.

This study found that the MATC Promise increased college attainment by encouraging Milwaukee high school students to access state and federal aid, and to consider matriculating to their local two-year college. The MATC Promise exemplifies the last-dollar model of college aid. If seniors at Milwaukee area public high schools complete academic milestones, apply for financial aid, qualify based on low family income, and matriculate to Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC), then the Promise covers any remaining tuition charges. The message promoting free college was the program’s main element, since the funding support for eligible students came primarily from existing state and federal aid. We studied outcomes for the first four graduating classes after the Promise was launched, compared to the trend in Milwaukee for the previous six graduating classes. The rate of matriculation to MATC increased from 10 percent to 15 percent. There was no such increase in matriculation to other technical college districts around the state, suggesting that the increase was caused by the Promise. The increase in enrollment was larger among lower-income students and those in the urban Milwaukee Public Schools. Those students were more likely to apply for financial aid earlier, regardless of whether they ultimately qualified for the Promise, and their rate of matriculation to any college increased from 45 percent to 49 percent. There was no indication that attracting additional students to college led to lower graduation rates, though we were limited to examining credentials earned in two years or less.

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