Free college drives diversity at two-year schools

Promise programs have a greater effect on enrollment than reductions in tuition and fees, study finds
By: | October 21, 2020
Free college programs at two year schools increase enrollment of Hispanic females by 52%; Black females by 51%; Black males by 47%; and Hispanic males by 40%. (GettyImages/FG Trade)Free college programs at two year schools increase enrollment of Hispanic females by 52%; Black females by 51%; Black males by 47%; and Hispanic males by 40%. (GettyImages/FG Trade)

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 Gándara, 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,” Gándara 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, Gándara 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,” Gándara 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.