What Can Promise Programs Mean for California’s Students?

Thinking back to the last article you read on higher education, it’s likely you saw the word “promise”: a promised spot in college for high schoolers, a promise of affordability for families, a promise of a brighter economic future. In fact, few ideas in higher education have gotten as much play and visibility in recent years as college promise programs.

Promise programs are, unsurprisingly, very popular with the public. What community doesn’t love the idea of free college? That public support and the loose definition of what constitutes a promise program give implementers considerable leverage to incorporate other priorities into their promise programs.

First, let’s review the basics.

What exactly is a college promise program?

Like other buzzwords in higher education (i.e., equity, access), the concept of a college promise program does not have a single definition. At their core, promise programs are place-based scholarship initiatives aimed at increasing college-going for high school graduates. But with over 50 programs in California (and 200+ across the nation), they can, and do, vary on pretty much every dimension. Promise programs can be institution-based (the Long Beach Promise is based at and funded by Long Beach City College), a cross-sector citywide initiative (like the Oakland Promise), or a statewide effort like California’s College Promise Grant or the College for All Ballot Measure. But they also differ in:

  • How they are funded (private donors, public funds, or a mix of both)
  • How widely they cast their net of potential student participants
  • The dollar amount they promise students in college scholarships, and if those funds can be applied to college costs beyond tuition
  • Whether they offer non-financial supports such as advising and mentoring
  • The extent to which they focus on college completion, in addition to college enrollment
  • The requirements they stipulate for their participants such as residency and academic standing

What do we know about effectiveness?

Although promise programs are newer to California, Michigan’s Kalamazoo Promise and Arkansas’s El Dorado Promise have been around for 10+ years. Evaluations of these and other programs show improved college enrollment and persistence for participants, and even gains in college completion, although to a lesser extent. Unfortunately, without a statewide comprehensive data system, California’s promise programs must track outcomes on a program by program basis; our state’s data infrastructure is not set up to assess impact at a larger scale.

How are promise programs unique?

First, promise programs are one of the few comprehensive higher education efforts that can be conceptualized and implemented at the local level, rather than at the state or higher education system level. They can create a stronger sense of community, promote college-going culture in a region, and they encourage cross-sector and cross-agency collaboration at the local level.

Second, as I mentioned at the beginning, implementers can use their discretion to customize promise programs based on community needs. For example, California’s College Promise Grant stipulates that participating institutions implement Guided Pathways (i.e., clear degree maps for students aimed to reduce excess credits and streamline coursework). Other locally-based promise programs incorporate parent education efforts and college savings accounts.

We encourage promise program implementers to consider the hidden costs of obtaining a degree in California as well as the importance of obtaining the right degree to fit workforce demands.

As California rolls out its statewide promise effort in the coming years, it remains to be seen what other higher education innovations the promise program model can leverage. We at California Competes will be monitoring the progress of California College Promise, playing close attention to the breadth and depth of the program’s impact. Could promise programs encourage students to take on STEM majors that lead to more employment opportunities? Could they be used as a funding source to deal with rising housing costs that increasingly threaten college affordability in our state? We encourage promise program implementers to consider the hidden costs of obtaining a degree in California as well as the importance of obtaining the right degree to fit workforce demands.