College Promise is the latest college-access movement in the United States. With more than 300 programs across the nation, College Promise is pushing forward national conversations about college access and affordability. College Promise programs typically cover college tuition and fees for students in a particular geographic area. Some programs help students from a single high school, while others are broader, serving all students in a city or state. Many of these programs reach out to families well before students have graduated from high school to show them that college is a viable option for everyone.
The Detroit Promise, administered by the Detroit Regional Chamber, has operated since 2013. It offers Detroit’s recent high school graduates a last-dollar scholarship – meaning all tuition and fees are covered after financial aid is applied – to any of five area community colleges. (Recently, several four-year colleges were added to the Detroit Promise for eligible students.) The scholarship covers three years of tuition.
While Detroit Promise staff have observed that the program reduces financial barriers that can keep the city’s high school graduates from attending community college, Detroit Promise students’ persistence rates once they arrive in community college have remained distressingly low. To improve students’ college experience and help more of them persist and graduate, the Chamber partnered with MDRC to create the Detroit Promise Path, which adds proven student support services to the existing scholarship. The services include a comprehensive coaching component with a dedicated campus coach and monthly financial incentives to offset other costs of attendance (for example, transportation costs). The program, operated centrally by the Chamber, relies on data tracking through a management information system to ensure it is operating effectively, to monitor students’ progress, and to communicate with students.
MDRC is evaluating the Detroit Promise Path using a randomized controlled trial design. Two cohorts of students participated in the study: those students entering community college in fall 2016 and fall 2017. Early findings from the evaluation show that the program is helping these students stay enrolled in school, with particularly large, positive effects on the percentage of students who enroll full time and who enroll in the summer. The evaluation has also found positive effects on students’ credit accumulation. MDRC’s final report in 2021 will analyze the program’s effect on graduation rates.
Because of the encouraging early findings, the Chamber has begun offering the program to all incoming Detroit Promise students at four of the five community colleges in the study, with a goal of expanding the program even further in the future.