State and Local College Promise Programs: Examining Policy and Practice

Research for Action (RFA), in partnership with University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (Penn AHEAD), has launched a multi-year research project that will examine how state and local college promise programs vary in terms of design, implementation and outcomes such as student enrollment and credential attainment.  Designed to be of practical utility as states and localities consider both whether and how to implement these programs, the study will include a return on investment analysis, and will also identify the contextual factors that can affect the depth and reach of promise programs.  This research is supported by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

College Promise Programs: A Growing Movement

Over the last decade—but especially in the past several years—college promise programs have been proliferating at both the local and state levels.  Such programs typically aim to lower or eliminate the cost of college attendance and in doing so increase college attainment.  Most frequently, promise programs offer place-based scholarships for residents in specific geographical areas to attend local colleges or universities, as seen in cities such as Kalamazoo and Pittsburgh.  More recently, several states have announced or launched promise programs that provide last dollar scholarships for all qualifying state residents.

Promise programs vary significantly in terms of funding, scope, and eligibility; and the context in which they are developed and implemented can be substantially different as well.  Yet we know relatively little about the implications of these variations, and whether certain approaches are best suited to specific contexts.  The goal of this research is to help fill this gap by providing policymakers, practitioners, and higher education writ large with analysis designed to inform strong policy and practice.

Project Overview

This mixed-methods research project is designed to achieve the following high-level goals:

  • Refine and expand Penn AHEAD’s typology of promise programs to provide a common lexicon and categorize existing programs using this typology;
  • Conduct in-depth case studies of the design, implementation and effects of a variety of state and local promise programs aimed at community colleges, including an examination of how such programs affect college-going culture in high schools;
  • Identify contextual factors such as amount and type of funding, postsecondary governance structure, political factors and workforce development needs that influence how specific promise programs are developed and implemented;
  • Develop and test a framework for determining whether the benefits of a free community college program exceed the costs; and
  • Develop and disseminate a set of policy briefs and articles that highlight high-level findings relevant to state policymakers, national postsecondary policy organizations, institutional leaders, and academics.

For more information about this project, please contact Dr. Kate Callahan (