All Penn AHEAD Papers


Is a College Promise Program an Effective Use of Resources? Understanding the Implications of Program Design and Resource Investments for Equity and Efficiency

Document Type

Journal Article

Date of this Version




Access and Completion in Higher Education


case studies, community colleges, equity, policy analysis, postsecondary education

Copyright/Permission Statement

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.


Also known as “free tuition,” college promise programs are emerging across the United States as a potential mechanism for improving college access and affordability, Whether these initiatives are an effective use of resources depends on whether programs advance societal goals for equity and efficiency. Although some emerging research explores the role of program design, few studies have probed how program design and resource investments influence program outcomes, efficiency, and equity. To address this knowledge gap, this study draws on case studies of programs that offer free tuition to attend four community colleges. Findings illustrate how program outcomes, efficiency, and equity may be influenced by the criteria used to determine program eligibility and the resources invested in the financial award and other program components. We hope the findings are useful to policymakers and institutional leaders, as they strive to allocate resources to advance both efficiency and equity.

Funder Acknowledgment

This project was supported by a subcontract from Research for Action (RFA) that was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the views of the funders. RFA led the larger examination of state and local college promise programs from which this study is derived. RFA colleagues (Victoria Ballerini, Kri Burkander, Kate Callahan, Shanell Hagood, Dan Kent, Kasey Meehan, and Kate Shaw) provided feedback on the selection of cases selected for this article and interview protocols, assisted with on-site data collection, coordinated debriefing meetings, and engaged in discussion of initial emerging themes. We also appreciate the assistance with data collection and preparation provided by students at the University of Pennsylvania: Abigail Dym, Nathan Jiang, Brent Nagamine, Sydney Osifeso, Elysia Pan, and Sean Saxon. An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the Association of Education Finance and Policy.



Date Posted: 20 October 2020