Free college drives diversity at two-year schools

Promise programs have a greater effect on enrollment than reductions in tuition and fees, study finds

First-time black, Hispanic, and female students are enrolling full-time in two-year schools in greater numbers thanks to free-college programs, a new report has found.

Enrollments at community colleges with promise programs increased 23% more than at the seven closest public community colleges without free initiatives, according to the “Promise for Whom?” published by the American Educational Research Association.

“Prior to the pandemic, promise programs were an increasingly popular mechanism for enhancing college entry and postsecondary attainment,” said co-author Denisa GÁ¡ndara, an assistant professor of education policy and leadership at Southern Methodist University. “Our study offers compelling evidence, and reinforces evidence from prior research, of the benefits of such programs in achieving college enrollment goals.”

Compared to the nearest seven community colleges, promise colleges saw enrollment increases among the following groups of students: Hispanic females: 52%; Black females: 51%; Black males: 47%; and Hispanic males: 40%.

The study did not find an enrollment boost among Asian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander students.

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The report noted, however, that the COVID pandemic has forced states to tighten higher ed budgets while low-income students have postponed their college plans in greater numbers than other students.

Community colleges are also seeing steeper enrollment declines than are four-year schools.

The study also analyzed the enrollment impacts of various tuition models:

  • Merit-based programs increased the enrollment of white students and Asian/Pacific Islander females
  • Need-based programs resulted in smaller enrollment increases among all demographic groups
  • “First dollar” models boosted the enrollment of white students
  • Programs that covered full tuition increased the enrollment of Asian/Pacific Islander students.

“Programs with income criteria have consistent negative effects on enrollment of all groups, except for Black male students,” GÁ¡ndara added. “This could be related to the higher administrative burdens for students, such as requiring proof of income.”

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The study reinforced prior research that showed promise programs boost enrollment more than reductions in tuition and fees, GÁ¡ndara said.

“In addition to reducing price obstacles, promise programs can foster the college-going culture in schools and communities, and change students’ perceptions of affordability,” GÁ¡ndara said. “The universal ‘free college’ and ‘college for all’ messages that generally accompany promise programs can be especially impactful for racial minority students, who are often subject to lower educational expectations from teachers and counselors and who are more likely to perceive college as unaffordable.”

The study used U.S. Department of Education postsecondary education data System for academic years 2000–01 to 2014–15.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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