Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is the College Promise movement?
In 1947, a special commission delivered a report, "Higher Education for American Democracy," to President Harry S. Truman. The report emphasized the necessity of incorporating vocational education into American higher education, and stated that all Americans should have the opportunity to complete two years of post-high-school higher education at no cost as an extension of the American public K-12 school system. The College Promise movement is an effort to fulfill this never-realized vision—to keep the college promise.
Over the past couple of years, the movement has evolved into a dynamic bipartisan effort, which has included the America's College Promise proposal made by U.S. President Barack Obama, the bipartisan U.S. Senate and House of Representatives America's College Promise Acts of 2015, and both statewide and institution-specific College Promise programs that have been expanding rapidly throughout the country. To encourage and help to coordinate the movement, an independent, nonpartisan College Promise Campaign was founded by former U.S. Under Secretary of Education Dr. Martha J. Kanter in 2015. ACCT in partnership with the Campaign and with the American Association of Community Colleges created a College Promise Campaign toolkit for community college board members and presidents who are interested in advancing the movement. ACCT President and CEO J. Noah Brown whote extensively about the importance of realizing the Truman Commission promise in his 2012 book First in the World: Community Colleges and America's Future; President Brown serves on the College Promise Campaign Advisory Board.
Why does ACCT support the College Promise movement?
We support the College Promise movement primarily because its goal is the foundation of community colleges: Making two years of high-quality higher education, with an option to emphasize improved skills for improved earning potential, available to all American people, regardless of socioeconomic or any other disadvantages. The College Promise movement also is an opportunity to emphasize the vital role that community colleges specifically serve in American higher education and the community, state and national economies.
Is the College Promise movement led by the federal government?
No. While the College Promise concept originated with the special commission to President Harry S. Truman, the idea did not become a federal initiative. However, based on local interest and state and community support following the Truman Commission report, community and techinical colleges began to spring up throughout the country. While vital to countless American communities, these colleges for many years were considered by many to be "starter colleges," "junior colleges," or a second choice for higher education. This changed during the Great Recession of 2008-2009, when economic challenges and rapidly rising university tuition and fees sent a record number of students to community colleges to attain high-quality education without incurring crippling debt. People who found themselves out of work as a result of the recession also enrolled in record numbers to acquire news skills necessary for a competitive job market. Community colleges met the demand, and in the process, American students became aware of the value and importance of these unique institutions.
Remembering the Truman Commission promise and recognizing the significant contributions made by community colleges to educate people, get them back to work, and to stimulate the economy, In 2015, President Barack Obama introduced America's College Promise, a proposal to make two years of community college education available at no cost to all Americans. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives introduced respective America's College Promise Act of 2015 bills. While these bills didn't pass, the movement became a multi-faceted grassroots effort that is helping students throughout the country to attain two years of community college education.
When ACCT, AACC and the College Promise Campaign collaborated to create a toolkit for community college board members and presidents, there were 59 identified College Promise programs in the United States. A year later, there are miore than 150.
Can states implement the College Promise without federal support?
Yes. A successful example of a fully state-supported version of College Promise is the Tennessee Promise program. Similarly, states like Oregon, Minnesota, Wyoming and Oklahoma implemented or are currently initiating College Promise programs. While Federal support would significantly bolster any College Promise campaign, states and communities can move ahead without federal support. The College Promise Campaign studies models of promising programs for replication and scaling. The campaign welcomes and encourages direct collaboration with states and local communities to initiate tailored College Promise campaigns and specific programs, and to educate policymakers and the public alike on the tremendous value inherent in supporting the College Promise.
The movement is not designed to promote any single approach, but seeks to build a movement around the broader vision of tuition and debt-free college education for the first two years, greater state and federal investment in higher education, and the imperative to increase student access and success in higher education.
What are the requirements for students to participate in College Promise Programs where available?
Across states, cities, and communities, College Promise programs have different eligibility criteria and requirements for students, with respect to a maintaining a minimum grade-point average, level of earned income that qualifies students from receiving College Promise financial support, qualifying academic or technical programs, and other criteria unique to a particular community, state or institution. In most College Promise programs, students must be enrolled in an approved academic or technical program at an accredited institution of higher education. Read about a selection of different College Promise programs and their eligibility requirements at ACCT NOW.
What is the difference between first-dollar and last-dollar College Promise programs?
First-dollar and last-dollar programs refer to two distinct methods of distributing funding for College Promise programs.
The term “first-dollar program” means that College Promise funds are provided to students first, or before any other grant or awarded funding. By contrast, the term “last-dollar program” means that students would draw upon any available public funding before being awarded College Promise funds. Both models administer funds to eligible students that cover the direct costs of being a student, such as tuition and fees.
In a ”first-dollar program," the amount of College Promise funding awarded to an eligible student does not take supercede any additional funding or grants that the student is eligible for, such a federal Pell Grant. Therefore, a “first-dollar” College Promise program has the potential to reduce the associated costs that come with being a student, such as transportation, childcare, school materials, and other costs. While not often discussed in the greater conversation about rising college tuition, a great number of community college students are held back by financial barriers other than tuition and fees, and these barriers too often keep them from remaining productively enrolled in college. Food insecurity, housing insecurity and homelessness, and having to make a choice between working and attending classes are only a few of the major financial hurdles faced by community college students. First-dollar College Promise programs relieve students of many of these pressures for two years so that they can remain in class, dedicate time and energy to their studies, eat and maintain roofs over their heads, and then progress to find meaningful work and give back.
In a “last-dollar program," the amount of College Promise funding awarded to an eligible student takes into account any additional public funding or grants the student is eligible for, like a federal Pell Grant. The total amount of “last-dollar” College Promise funding a student receives to cover the direct costs of being a student varies depending on other public funding for which the student is eligible. Unlike “first-dollar programs," “last-dollar programs” do not have the potential of reducing the associated costs that come with being a student, such as transportation, childcare, school materials, and other costs.
ACCT supports any viable College Promise program designed to improve the persistence and educational attainment of community college students; however, when economically feasible, the association strongly favors first-dollar program designs, as these programs give students the greatest chance of truly succeeding in an increasingly competitive world.
Is the College Promise separate from or related to the federal Pell Grants Program?
College Promise programs are entirely separate from the federal Pell Grants Program; however, as described above, different College Promise program designs can be impacted by Pell Grant support. So although Pell Grant Program funding can supplement or displace College Promise funding, the two programs were developed and are administered separately.
Could the College Promise become another unfunded mandate?
At this time, it appears that states, college systems and individual institutions are best equipped to design and implement College Promise programs that are integrated with their existing education system structures and communities' needs and resources. We retain the vision that two years of community college education will become as universally available to all Americans as elementary and postsecondary education are throughout the nation, and as elementary and secondary education were made publicly available state by state over time, we believe the College Promise will follow this historic precedent.
Experience shows that in difficult economic times, elected officials face unforeseen challenges and unintended consequences, but at the same time, they continue to support policies that have successful outcomes. We are confident that government leaders and taxpayers will benefit economically, socially and civically from a better educated society and that they will be more favorably inclined to support the College Promise based on positive results for the long-term prosperity of our nation.
How does the College Promise address education and income inequality?
Community colleges already reduce inequality in education and income by serving more than 40 percent of all undergraduates in the U.S. at over 1,100 community colleges throughout the nation. However, in the next 10 years, more than 6 out of 10 jobs will require employees to have more than a high school diploma, while today only 40 percent of US adults ages 25-64 are adequately prepared for the workforce. Because low-income students comprise such a large portion of the community college population, the Campaign is designed to increase opportunities for low income and first generation students, for whom a college education may seem otherwise unattainable.
Why aren’t four-year colleges included in the College Promise Campaign?
We recognize that tuition at many four-year universities and colleges throughout the country has become difficult and in some cases untenable for students in recent years, all too often saddling middle-class and working-class students who attend them with a decade or longer of significant student loan debt. We share concern about this; however, as community college leaders, we are positioned exclusively to support community college students' efforts to access, persist and succeed in and to progress beyond the two years of education that community colleges are positioned to offer.
Community and technical colleges fill a unique role within American higher education, serving nearly half of the nation’s undergraduates. College Promise students are expected to pursue and earn a two-year college degree, a technical certificate, and/or transfer to a four-year university bachelor’s degree program.
Another important reason to focus College Promise programs on two-year colleges is that these institutions serve a large number of first-generation and socioeconomically disadvantaged students. We know that community colleges are gateway institutions that admit and support students who in many cases have a tremendous number of obstacles preventing them from pursuing or completing higher education, releasing them back into the workforce where they can make a real living wage with their college credentials, and helping those interested in getting on the track to attaining higher levels of education at an affordable cost.
We believe that every American should be able to access high-quality higher education. We recommend that all financially concerned students compare the educational opportunities made available at community colleges with those at higher-cost colleges or universities and consider attending a community college for two years, and then transferring to a four-year institution.
ACCT and the College Promise Campaign underscore that community colleges are the starting point for making the first two years of a college education tuition and debt-free. Some College Promise programs, such as the remarkably successful Kalamazoo Promise, have already extended their initiative to four-year institutions. Communities and states are encouraged to adopt the larger vision if they wish.