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The Promise And Pitfalls Of A New Free-College Movement

The photo highlights a yellow-orange banner on a brick outside wall at El Sol Elementary in Kalamazoo, proclaiming that El Sol is a Promise school. The doorway to the building is in the background.
Sehvilla Mann

The launch of the Kalamazoo Promise scholarship almost 16 years ago was, of course, monumental for Kalamazoo. But it also had a profound impact on the rest of the country, says senior researcher Michelle Miller-Adams of the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

Miller-Adams says the Promise helped spark a nationwide movement to address the spiraling costs of higher education.

That movement is full of potential, but needs to avoid certain pitfalls to succeed, Miller-Adams writes in her new book “The Path to Free College.”

She recently joined us for more discussion.

SM: Tell us where we are with what you call the Promise Movement that grew out of the Kalamazoo Promise.

SM: The Kalamazoo Promise was pivotal for sparking a movement across the country on the part of local communities and institutions to create a tuition-free path to college for at least some of their residents. Now most of those programs are not as generous or as sweeping as the Kalamazoo Promise.

But they have continued to be created in all different kinds of communities and increasingly in states. So recently here in Michigan we have seen the introduction of two free college programs for adults without college degrees, and there are about 15 or 16 states that have done something similar.

SM: Is there sort of a median, or a general level around which they fall?

MMA: Well, one of the things about the Kalamazoo Promise that is very unusual in this Promise field is that students who receive it, receive it first. And if they receive other forms of grant aid they’re allowed to add that on top and of course the largest of those is going to be Pell grants, which are available to low-income students. In the scholarship world that’s called a first-dollar structure and it’s very unusual because it’s very expensive.

Most of these programs, all but a handful are what’s called last-dollar programs, so if you are eligible for Pell grants you would apply those first, and then you would add your Promise scholarship on top of that. That’s a structure that makes these programs much more affordable to run but of course it’s not as much of a benefit for the students receiving these Promise programs.

SM: Right, because I would imagine if you’re having to put your Pell grant toward tuition then you don’t have as much of it left to put toward room and board which after all can be quite a chunk of the cost of going to college.

MMA: Yes, and most of the state programs limit the usage of the scholarship to community colleges or to other colleges in the two-year public sector, and there your Pell grants in most states will actually cover your community college tuition. So you will end up using those for tuition and you’re absolutely right, living expenses can be much more than the cost of tuition, for many post-secondary pathways.

So this has certainly not resolved the college affordability issue.

SM: The political conversation about free college or much more affordable college has shifted also. And so, I just want to ask if there’s a link between the Promise movement and, say, Senator Bernie Sanders calling for federally-funded free college and then other Democratic candidates making similar calls.

MMA: That’s a really interesting question, and I do trace this convergence of the national conversation around college affordability that was led most prominently by Senator Bernie Sanders, and what is effectively a grassroots movement to create these local Promise programs. And in the book I talk about how those two movements, one kind of high level and the other more grassroots and bottom-up converged, to really focus attention on the need for free college. I would say these were two really independent strands that then got woven together, beginning under the Obama administration, taking a bit of a break during the Trump years and then resurfacing under President Biden’s leadership.

SM: If the goal is to make college free or very affordable, I find myself asking, why not just go with a top-down, federal free-college for all kind of program? I mean, doesn’t that make more sense than a patchwork approach?

MMA: There are pros and cons to both. There are real challenges in creating a federal program, the most obvious of which is getting it passed and funded.

SM: No small issue in itself!

MMA: No small issue, and there is a proposal out there from the Biden administration. There are several bills in Congress. Their prospects are iffy. I don’t know if this program will be passed or not. But even if you got over that political and that funding challenge – and it’s a buy, I mean it’s a bargain, right? But even if you got over the political challenge,

One of the problems, or one of the hard parts of this is that our education system is not organized as a single national system. We have 50 different educational systems in the U.S. at least. And so coming up with a strategy that will help all states provide tuition-free college to their students is challenging.

And what the President has proposed, what makes sense, is a federal-state partnership, where states would have some skin in the game, would be operating the program, but the federal government would be paying for most of it. You can kind of think of it along the lines of, say, Medicaid expansion.

SM: As a millennial, I’ve heard tales of these magical days when tuition at public universities was so affordable, you could get a summer job scooping ice cream or something like that and pay for your tuition for the year.

MMA: Well, I am much older than a millennial, and I actually remember those days. I grew up in California, I went to college in California in the 1970s, when tuition at all public institutions throughout the State of California including the University of California was incredibly affordable. My tuition bill when I was in college was $238 a quarter.

So you raise a really important point, which is that often free college is painted as kind of a radical new idea, coming from the radical left. And it isn’t that at all. What we’re talking about is mechanisms that will help us return to a period when college was affordable for middle-class and lower-income families. This is something that the US had for a very long time, and that’s only changed, really, in the past several decades.

SM: I suppose the reason we can’t just step back in time is because politically, restoring public university funding to where it was is a – a tall bargain? I’m mixing my metaphors –

MMA: A tall order. Yeah that’s true and one of the things we have seen with this Promise movement is that attaching the opportunity for free college to individuals is politically –making college free, it’s a strong message. And it draws support across the political spectrum. Most of these local Promise programs are, I would say, nonpartisan, apolitical, and if you look at the state movement,

You will see red states, blue states, purple states among those that have created tuition-free college pathways. So there’s something politically appealing about free college. It’s a little easier lift than, ‘restore state higher ed funding.’ So that may be one reason why we seem to be headed down this path.

SM: You write that this moment holds a lot of potential for expanding free college, affordable college. But that there’s also the risk of going off the rails. And so, what are the potential pitfalls the free college movement needs to avoid?

MMA: One of the biggest mistakes that designers of these programs can make is to make them too complicated. We have found in 15-16 years of research, into not just the Kalamazoo Promise but other Promise programs as well, that simplicity is definitely your friend. It’s very hard to effectively message about free college and the more bells and whistles you hang on it, the harder it becomes.

And so many Promise programs will add GPA requirements, they will add attendance requirements, sometimes they’ll add other requirements. And these are kind of natural impulses. ‘Oh, let’s make these scholarships available to students we know will do well.’ That’s not really the point.

SM: Or students who will stay in the state after they graduate and hang around for a certain number of years.

MMA: Sure. And there are programs that have created rules that say, if you receive a scholarship and then you leave the state your grant will turn into a loan. That’s a very confusing message, and I don’t recommend that as well. So I feel like keeping requirements to a minimum to facilitate usage by the population you’re trying to reach – you’re trying to reach students that would not otherwise be on a college-going pathway. You’re trying to bring them into that pathway.

SM: Are there lessons particularly in regards to equity, that potential launchers of these programs should pay attention to?

MMA: Having a Promise program that’s easy to understand, easy to talk about, easy to access, that’s going to be really important if you’re trying to reach people who don’t have that “college knowledge” in their community. I was really happy to talk to a young woman I know who had applied for the Michigan Reconnect program, which is the just-introduced-this-year, program for the state that sends adults without college degrees to community college tuition-free.

Portrait of author Michelle Miller Adams. She is standing in a hallway, wearing a blue patterned dress and smiling
Credit Courtesy photo / Michelle Miller-Adams
Michelle Miller-Adams
Michelle Miller-Adams

And she had done the application on her phone, and it had taken five minutes to do and that really warmed my heart because that’s how it should be. I think it’s also important to go back to something we mentioned earlier, to do your best to deliver new money to students, not just make them use their Pell grants for these scholarships. Because low-income students are then going to be left without the resources they need to support themselves while they are going to college.

Sehvilla Mann joined WMUK’s news team in 2014 as a reporter on the local government and education beats. She covered those topics and more in eight years of reporting for the Station, before becoming news director in 2022.