A majority of Californians believe that college affordability is a big problem for the state, according to the PPIC Statewide Survey. Low family incomes and the high cost of living have made it difficult for many students to pay the full price of college. This is true even though California’s public colleges and universities have some of the lowest tuition levels in the country and the majority of community college, UC, and CSU students receive grants to cover the cost of tuition. Policymakers have taken notice of the public’s concerns.
Many local governments, school districts, colleges, and business communities have been addressing the issue of access and affordability through "promise programs.” The "promise” label has been adopted to represent a wide range of programs that share at least two specific characteristics: they are limited to individuals in a particular geographic area, such as a city or school district, and they provide some level of financial support for postsecondary education. Nearly 80 promise programs have been launched nationwide since 2001. In California, according to WestEd, 23 of these programs have been created since 2008—13 of them in the past two years.
The most well-known California-based promise program is the Long Beach Promise, which offers all public school students in the district a tuition-free first semester at Long Beach Community College. It also guarantees admission to Long Beach State University for students who complete required college preparatory courses with the necessary grades.
College promise programs often couple financial incentives with extensive outreach to middle-school students and improved student services like tutoring and counseling. In California, the vast majority of these programs are focused on getting students to enroll in community colleges—most offer one semester of free community college tuition and do not provide enrollment guarantees to a four-year college.
While it’s important to ensure that students who might not otherwise consider college be given incentives to attend, the state’s biggest challenge is ensuring that college students stay in school and earn a degree or certificate. Only about half of California community college students receive an associate degree or certificate, transfer to four-year schools, or complete 60 transferable units within six years of enrolling. There is some anecdotal evidence that promise programs improve college-going rates, but they do not seem to boost college completion. In order to improve completion rates, programs may need to provide support services for participants who have entered college.
More generally, the wide range of program designs makes it difficult to assess their effectiveness—even within California, promise programs have different residency requirements, eligibility criteria, grades of entry (middle school vs. freshman year of high school), financial awards, support services, and levels of financial sustainability. Defining the basic elements of promise programs and developing effective standards for program design and implementation will help ensure their future success.
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