Programs offering financial assistance backed up by support services to encourage college attendance and completion — sometimes extending the offer when students are still in elementary school, or even earlier — are proliferating at a rapid pace in California.
At least 23 California community colleges are now offering “College Promise” initiatives, including 13 that have begun or will begin in the current year alone, according to a new report by WestEd.
That’s still only about 1 in 5 of California’s 113 community colleges.
But leaders in both K-12 and higher education are hailing the College Promise approach as among the most promising strategies to increase college-going rates.
At a gathering of hundreds of public school and community college representatives in Oakland last week, Los Angeles Community College District Chancellor Francisco Rodriguez said the College Promise initiative “could be the most comprehensive and effective student completion strategy that our districts can offer.”
In the audience were 66 community college presidents. Also there was Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said that just as public-private partnerships are important, so are the “public-public partnerships” that K-12 schools and community colleges have established to form College Promise programs. “This is one of the most exciting things happening in California,” he said.
Programs vary considerably, in the extent of both the financial assistance and the accompanying support services they provide.
In Mendocino, for example, the “Adopt a Fifth Grader” program offers low-income 5th-grade students a check for $25 and a certificate awarding them a $1,000 scholarship if they eventually make it to Mendocino College.
Oakland Promise’s new “cradle to career” initiative goes even further. The goal is to triple the number of Oakland students graduating from college. Starting next year, the program will deposit $500 in a college savings account for 250 low-income children before they reach kindergarten, and up to $500 in financial incentives to families to ensure children are prepared for kindergarten, Such accounts will eventually be offered to all low-income children.
In addition, by 2020 a $100 college savings account will be opened for all kindergarten students regardless of income, with an opportunity for additional support, unless parents choose not to participate. This part of the program has just been launched at 18 elementary schools this fall.
Along the way, students will be able to college and career planning advice and other support from “Future Centers” being established at middle and high schools.
As part of a larger scholarship program, the Peralta Community College District has offered free tuition and fees for the first semester to all Oakland students, and Cal State East Bay has guaranteed enrollment to any Oakland public school student that meets its eligibility requirements.
One of the most established programs is Long Beach College Promise, which began in 2008. It provides a tuition-free year to any Long Beach Unified graduate who attends Long Beach City College, and guaranteed admission to Cal State Long Beach if they complete a minimum number of college prep or other transfer requirements. Middle school students sign a pledge to take challenging courses, explore career options, and develop strong study skills.
The model got a boost when President Barack Obama, in his 2015 State of the Union speech, drew attention to his America’s College Promise proposal, which would allow students to attend community colleges tuition-free for two years.
Not surprisingly, the Republican-controlled Congress never appropriated any money for the program. But the concept is being promoted nationally by the College Promise Campaign, now headed by Martha Kanter, the former longtime chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District in Cupertino.
California’s role, and that of some other large states, is especially important to the expansion of the program, said Kanter at the Oakland gathering last week. “If we can capture California’s Promise, New York’s Promise, Texas’ Promise and Florida’s Promise we’d have half the community colleges in the country really getting more students to complete their college degrees and to move on to transfer to universities,” she said.
But California seems to offer more fertile ground than arguably any other state for these programs. That’s because fees at California’s community colleges are already the lowest in the country — $46 per credit, or just over $1,100 for a full-time student per year. That is about $2,000 less than the national average. On top of that, most students already qualify to have fees waived through what is called the Board of Governors fee waiver for those from low-income backgrounds.
Thus offering free tuition is far less of a stretch in California than in many states where community college fees can run into the thousands of dollars.
Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the recently appointed chancellor of the California Community Colleges who is also a member of the UC Board of Regents, said that a key to the impact of College Promise programs is not so much the prospect of free tuition, but that it changes mindsets among students and families that get them on the path to college.
“The more people know about the College Promise program, the more the kids and the families see themselves as college-going,” said Oakley, who in his former role as superintendent-president of Long Beach City College was one of the founders of the Long Beach program.
Financial support is just “a piece of the program,” he said. Just being aware that going to college is a feasible option for many families will make a significant difference, he said.
Because programs are so varied, and many are new, research on their effectiveness is spotty. “Despite the enthusiasm and positive anecdotes surrounding the promise program model, there’s little research showing how effective and sustainable the fairly new movement is over the long term,” a 2015 article in Inside Higher Ed asserted. One challenge is that it will take years to tell whether programs offering incentives to students in the early grades, or at birth, as is the case in Oakland, will eventually translate into college success.
According to a review in March by the National College Access Network, the available literature on College Promise programs that promote early awareness of college costs and opportunities “can be an effective strategy for increasing college access and success.” But it cautioned that “early awareness must be viewed as the first step in a series of student outreach and support activities through the educational journey.”
A five-year assessment of the Long Beach program showed that the percentage of Long Beach Unified students enrolled at Cal State Long Beach increased by 43 percent in the five years after the inception of the program in 2008. Similarly, many more students completed college-level math and English courses when they got to Long Beach City College.
Mary Rauner, a senior research associate at the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd, conceded that “we don’t have strong evidence yet about the impact” of College Promise programs, and that there is a need for more rigorous research to document their long-term outcomes.
But she said that “we do know that in programs that have been around for some time, there has been improvement in college-going and persistence rates.” “Persistence” typically refers to the percentage of students who return to college in their second year.
One major challenge, Rauner said, is ensuring there is funding to sustain College Promise programs over time. But, she said, “We have already made a strong start in California. With the fee waiver, we are primed to grow very quickly.”
Louis Freedberg is the executive director of EdSource.