What is the College Promise Campaign?

The College Promise Campaign is a national, non-partisan initiative that builds broad public support for College Promise programs, which guarantee tuition and fees for eligible, hardworking students to complete a college education, starting with America’s community colleges. The Campaign is designed to support access, affordability, quality and completion to increase community college student success. It is often referred to as the “free college” movement, encouraging local colleges, communities and states to cover the cost of an undergraduate education for deserving students — whether that’s an associate’s degree, an occupational certificate, credits to transfer to a four-year college or university, or the full four years. Our ultimate goal is to make a college education – in the first two years at a minimum – as universal and accessible as high school has been for nearly a century. We want America’s students to have the opportunity to start and complete the first two years of postsecondary education without taking on unmanageable debt.
We are an initiative of Civic Nation, a charitable and educational 501(c)(3) organization that was founded in 2015. Civic Nation promotes sensible solutions to challenges in the areas of federal, state, and local policy. It educates the public about policy issues arising from those challenges. Civic Nation is the legal entity that houses and supports the infrastructure for the College Promise Campaign. No federal or state lobbying is conducted by Civic Nation on behalf of the College Promise Campaign.

How is the College Promise Campaign nonpartisan?

Our campaign has no affiliation with any political party. We support College Promise programs that have been proposed, launched, and/or sustained by public and private sector leaders and officials from all parties. We welcome collaboration among nonpartisan and bipartisan officials who want to work together for the public benefit of leveraging College Promise programs to increase the U.S. high school and college graduation rates.

We believe that providing universal and affordable access for all Americans to get the education and training they need to earn a living wage and contribute to a vibrant and prosperous society is a nonpartisan value. This value and spirit drive the work of the College Promise Campaign.

Our independent, high-performing National Advisory Board is led by representatives of major political parties. Dr. Jill Biden serves as our Honorary Chair, arguably community college’s greatest advocate. Former Governor Jim Geringer of Wyoming (R-WY), whose distinguished career includes advocating for and providing affordable education that results in college completion for our nation’s youth and adults serves as our Honorary Vice Chair..  

Our board is composed of 37 leaders from the education, business, student, philanthropy, labor, nonprofit, and government sectors. These dynamic leaders work within and across their sectors to build awareness and reach the Campaign’s ambitious goals.
As an example, In July 2016, we hosted events at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions to highlight bipartisan support for the College Promise. We discussed the economic, social, and civic impact of these programs and promoted a lively strategic conversation about strategies for increasing community college access, affordability, and completion. 

How can you make community college “free”? What does that mean?

The vision of the College Promise Campaign is for all students to have the opportunity to complete the first two years of higher education without taking on college debt. Specifically, this refers to earning an associate’s degree, a certificate, or transferring to a four-year baccalaureate program without incurring debt from public or private loans taken out to cover tuition, associated fees, basic living expenses and textbooks. We know that “free” in this context means “paid for” by communities, states, business, philanthropy and/or institutions.

The term “free community college” is used colloquially to refer to College Promise programs that actually are covering the costs of tuition and fees for eligible students. The goal of these programs is to make two years of high-quality higher education universally accessible to all Americans in the same way that elementary and secondary education are afforded to all Americans. It’s that simple.  

For many students, especially those from low-income families, the cost of higher education seems increasingly unaffordable and out of reach. Federal and state financial aid programs and the processes to take advantage of them can appear confusing, bureaucratic, and unavailable. We leverage the term “free” to start the conversation with prospective students, helping them realize in no uncertain terms, that like high school, a community college education is absolutely within their means. “Free” is a common term that speaks to the aspirations of students and families seeking educational opportunity. College Promise programs are designed to help students meet eligibility requirements and work towards graduation. Of course, nothing is “free” as we mentioned. That’s why students must work hard in their classes to complete their programs and community, education, and state leaders must work together to clear as many financial and educational hurdles as possible to deliver the promise of an affordable college education. 

How do students become eligible for College Promise programs?

There is no single or perfect way to structure a College Promise program or eligibility criteria. It’s up to education, government, business and other stakeholders in local communities and states to make these decisions based on their needs. All of these requirements are designed to ensure that students are on track to complete their courses of study, whether they seek an associate’s degree, an occupational certificate, or credits to transfer to a four-year college or university.

We are tracking the range of eligibility criteria and participation requirements in existing programs to share this information with communities and states looking to devise or update their own College Promise programs. Some of these place-based scholarships simply require that students have graduated from the local high school or are residents of the community. Others provide financial aid based on family income or adequate grades from secondary school.
Many programs require students to complete community service hours and/or meet with mentors to ensure their academic progress. Additionally, in most places, students must be enrolled in a qualified, accredited academic or technical program to be eligible for College Promise student aid.

What is a responsible student?

Our overarching goal is for more students to start and complete a high quality community college education without taking on unmanageable debt so they are prepared for the workforce and, ultimately, success in their lives. We know that communities and states are willing to invest in College Promise programs if they can be assured that enrolled students actually complete their community college education. That is the ROI – the return on their investment in the lives of their students. And that’s why most College Promise programs require various measures to ensure that students are responsible, that they are taking the necessary steps to work hard and make steady progress to complete their courses of study. These measures often include maintaining minimum GPAs or credit hours, checking in with a guidance counselor, meeting with a mentor, volunteering in the community, maintaining local residency, etc. Each program is unique and chooses its own measures for success! The College Promise Campaign showcases high-impact practices and evidence-based measures that are backed up by research to demonstrate the effective implementation of College Promise programs for students making progress toward their goals.

How are College Promise programs funded?

Communities, states, and individual community colleges are choosing from a broad range of models to create programs that are financially sustainable. How much public and/or private money communities and states are willing or able to invest in a College Promise program can vary based on the local economic, social, civic, and/or political environment. Some existing programs were built slowly with private sector funds, while others have used a combination of public and private dollars, and still others are publicly funded. Most programs take advantage of federal and state student financial aid, as state and federal support is a common feature of College Promise program models. A number of College Promise programs leverage existing local scholarship funds, such as campus aid, endowment, or foundation funds that are restricted for this purpose.

Our campaign is working with scholars, business leaders, policymakers, and other stakeholders to examine and propose sustainable financial models for funding College Promise programs for this and future generations. Cutting-edge research models drawn from student aid scholars, behavioral economists, and a host of social scientists are valuable resources for policy makers, educators, and the general public as states and communities devise sustainable solutions to fund the College Promise, in order to make a community college education affordable and performance-based for the long-term.

How do College Promise programs make college completion a priority?

College Promise programs approach student completion a variety of ways. Many programs build in milestones that must be met, build on evidence from research studies that help students aspire to and reach their goal of graduation. These often include support services such as mentoring and taking part in mandatory academic counseling and advising, as well as clearly defined academic requirements, such as maintaining good grades and making academic progress in the appropriate sequence of college-level courses leading to the certificate, degree, or university transfer. The College Promise Campaign partners closely with organizations that are entirely focused on the College Completion agenda to promote the studies and results that increase students’ opportunity to become the successful college graduates needed to lead our country forward.

Is the College Promise Campaign a federal, state or local effort?

While we support federal efforts to increase student student access and success in higher education, the College Promise Campaign is focused on building support and widespread understanding and adoption of College Promise programs at the local and state levels. The College Promise movement has received bipartisan support from many local and state leaders from across the political spectrum and has been inspired by myriad local, state and federal proposals that share one common goal: ensuring that more Americans start and complete a college education so they can be prepared for the jobs of the 21st century and the societal needs and challenges of their communities. The College Program Campaign supports all efforts to make higher education affordable and to graduate our nation’s students with the least possible amount of college debt.
We applaud any federal, state, or local efforts that fund tuition and fees for hardworking, responsible students, especially on community college campuses, which serve almost half our nation’s college students. The College Promise movement has been inspired by a wide range of programs, from KalamazooLong Beach and El Dorado, to name a few of the many local promise programs, to the very early California Community Colleges Board of Governors Fee Waiver grants, to the Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars program launched in 1990, to the more recent, nationally heralded Tennessee Promise launched by Governor Bill Haslam (R-TN) in 2014, to President Obama’s America’s College Promise proposal, now known as the America’s College Promise Act of 2015. Whether local, state, or federal, the College Promise has a unique appeal across constituencies to meet the goals of a prosperous nation in the 21st Century.

What’s the difference between the College Promise Campaign and America’s College Promise?

The America’s College Promise Act of 2015 (ACP) is federal legislation proposed to create federal-state partnership grants that fund tuition and fees for qualified community college students who are enrolled at least half-time and maintain at least a 2.5 GPA as they progress toward their degrees or certificates. There is also funding for capacity building at America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Under the ACP, the U.S. government would provide 75 percent of requisite funds, and states would provide the remaining 25 percent for community college costs. Additionally, the proposal would guarantee the alignment of transferable credits between participating community colleges and four year colleges and universities. Grants could also be used for occupational training programs with high graduation rates that lead to in-demand degrees and certificates. Participating community colleges would have to adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student learning outcomes leading to college success.

The College Promise Campaign is a national, non-partisan initiative that builds broad public support for College Promise programs, which guarantee tuition and fees for eligible, hardworking students to complete a college education, starting with America’s community colleges. The Campaign is designed to support access, affordability, quality and completion to increase community college student success.

We are an initiative of Civic Nation, a charitable and educational 501(c)(3) organization that was founded in 2015. Civic Nation promotes sensible solutions to challenges in the areas of federal, state, and local policy. It educates the public about policy issues arising from those challenges. Civic Nation is the legal entity that houses and supports the infrastructure for the College Promise Campaign. No federal or state lobbying is conducted by Civic Nation on behalf of the College Promise Campaign.

We respect that local communities and states want to design and implement programs in ways that will benefit their specific community or state. As part of our cross-sector outreach and engagement strategy, we work with leaders in states and localities; a range of people representing education, business, students, philanthropy, labor, nonprofits, and government.

We understand that the degree to which communities are willing to leverage public and/or private funds can vary depending on local or state political climates. That’s why we encourage communities to create College Promise programs that work for their region. We simply emphasize that the programs they choose to implement enable students to finish a community  college education without the burden of unmanageable debt — to complete a  postsecondary education, whether that’s earning an associate degree, obtaining a certificate to enter our move up in the job market, and/or transferring to a four-year college or university.

In our campaign, we are are actively monitoring the programs now underway so states and localities can figure out what models and program practices are more likely to produce the most robust and financially sustainable College Promise programs. We also look for the  examples of programs that provide academic and student support services to enable student completion and success in the workforce and in life.

Can states and localities implement the College Promise Campaign without federal support?

Yes. We’ve been inspired by the nationally renowned Tennessee Promise that provides community college students with a performance-based scholarship and a mentor with the requirement that students meet the GPA, high school graduation and community service requirements of the program. The goal of the Tennessee Promise is  focused on increasing the number of students who attend and complete a community college or Tennessee Technology Center program offered  in the state. Launched by Governor Bill Haslam (R-TN) in 2014 as part of the state’s Drive to 55 goal to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate by 2025, the Tennessee Promise was designed to keep the first two years of college within reach, without the burden of debt. To finance the program, Tennessee uses a combination of funds from state lottery surplus revenues, foundations, and businesses that are put into a restricted endowment for this purpose. The scholarship provides students with a last-dollar scholarship, meaning it will cover tuition and fees not funded by the Pell grant, the Hope Scholarship, or other state student aid.

Other states, such as Oregon, Minnesota and Rhode Island have followed Tennessee’s lead by establishing their own statewide programs. We are also seeing growth of College Promise programs in major cities, rural communities, counties, and individual community college and university campuses. 

While Federal legislation would significantly bolster any College Promise campaign, states and communities are moving ahead absent this support.

What if no federal legislation is passed by the U.S. Congress to support College Promise?

While there is active federal legislation to support College Promise programs at the state level, the College Promise Campaign is focused on helping local and state efforts to move forward, especially in places where there is already significant momentum.
In July 2015, the America’s College Promise Act of 2015, (ACP), was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by U.S. Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) and in the U.S. Senate by Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). The bill — which was inspired by President Obama’s America’s College Promise proposal —  is currently being considered by Congress. As with most legislative proposals it will likely undergo revisions and be the subject of great debate. Amendments to the legislation or new College Promise legislation could be introduced in futures sessions of Congress.

Could the College Promise become another unfunded mandate?

The College Promise Campaign is building on a national vision to provide funding for the first two years of a  community college education for students willing to work hard  to complete their certificates and degrees so they can be prepared for the 21st century workforce and productive community life. Our efforts won’t result in a federal mandate because the action to create and sustain these programs is taking place at the state and local level.

We leave it to the states and local communities to decide for themselves how to structure the College Promise that works for their region and their local economy. In some communities College Promise models are built on private funding. Others have combinations of public and private dollars. Still others are publicly funded with local government support. Most take advantage of federal and state student aids.
Our Campaign is examining a wide range of funding models and budgeting strategies to ensure that states and communities adopt programs that are financially sustainable for current and future generations of hardworking students. History has demonstrated again and again that public and private sector officials will support public investments with likely positive returns even during periods of extraordinary uncertainty and economic challenge. Multiple research studies demonstrate a threefold return for for every dollar invested in a community college education so we are confident that local and state leaders are inclined to support the College Promise. Why wouldn’t they make educational investments that yield such economic, social and civic benefits? Politicians and families know that all communities will benefit from having a well educated citizenry and workforce that is prepared for jobs of the 21st Century.

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, different College Promise program designs can be affected by Pell Grant support so students may receive more or  less financial support beyond tuition and fees,depending on whether the Pell grant dollars for low-income students are applied first, or after the College Promise funds are awarded. The two programs were developed and are administered separately.

How does the College Promise address education and income inequality?

Because the return on the investment in America’s students completing one, two, three, or four years of an undergraduate education is substantial, completing a community college certificate or degree or transfer requirements to enter and complete a four-year university already reduce education and income inequality.  Already, more than 40 percent of all U.S. undergraduates in the U.S. attend one of our nation’s  1,100 community colleges.


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. The College Promise Campaign’s goal is to increase access to higher education through College Promise programs, enabling hardworking students to complete their education without the burden of unmanageable college debt. Because low income students comprise such a large portion of the community college population, the Campaign is designed to support communities and states that increase opportunities for low income and first generation students, for whom a college education may seem otherwise unattainable.
Of course, the College Promise Campaign’s focus on community colleges as a starting point has created controversy among some policymakers who are concerned that academically talented students who meet four-year university requirements, especially for flagship institutions of higher education that already fund the full four years of college, could be redirected to community colleges. The College Promise Campaign is seeking out models in communities and states that have more expansive plans on the horizon to fund the full four years of an undergraduate education. There are some, like the Kalamazoo Promise, already underway. To date, about half of the College Promise programs that have been identified provide funding for up to four years of college, while the other half are targeted specifically for community colleges.

How will the College Promise be applied to Tribal Colleges and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) in general?

There are a variety of College Promise programs across the nation. The Campaign is identifying existing College Promise models and strategies already underway in Tribal Colleges and MSIs that fund the costs of a community college education for all responsible students. The Campaign is specifically showcasing details from successful College Promise programs, including eligibility requirements and evidence-based student outcomes that lead to successful college completion. Where communities and states have already taken leadership to provide the College Promise opportunity to their students with or without federal funding, the Campaign is examining their program incentives, educational interventions, and funding mechanisms to communicate the details of these models for replication and scaling to other regions, enabling more students to benefit from the College Promise as these models are better understood and adopted.

Why aren’t four-year colleges included in the College Promise Campaign?

We greatly value all higher educational institutions but we chose to begin our Campaign by focusing on community and technical colleges because they educate nearly half of the nation’s college student, serving a critical role within American higher education. Historically, community colleges have not been well understood or well-funded, given their significant responsibilities in educating current and future generations of Americans.


Additionally, we know that community colleges serve a large number of first-generation and socioeconomically disadvantaged students, who may not have had the opportunity to attend the best K-12 school systems or to even consider pursuing higher education with the escalation in college costs and lack of support to aspire to earn a college degree or certificate. These students often come to the community college from families confronting significant financial barriers that prevented their parents from seeking a college education. We don’t want money to hold them back from getting the higher education and training they need to enter the workforce with the credentials to earn a family-sustaining wage and support a productive life in their communities and states.


While College Promise scholarships are typically used for two-year programs, many students use the credits they earn at a community or technical college to transfer to a four year college or university. Others use the dual enrollment option available in their local high schools to earn community college credits to graduate or continue on to a university earlier than they would have. That means saving time, money, and effort to complete an undergraduate education in less than four years. For many students, completing the first two years of college before transferring to a four year school makes a bachelor’s degree that originally seemed out of reach an affordable opportunity they might not have had.

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 into account any additional funding or grants that the student is eligible for, like a federal Pell Grant. Therefore, a “first-dollar” College Promise program covers the direct costs of being a student, and has the potential to reduce the associated costs that come with being a student, such as transportation, childcare, school materials, test expenses, and other related college costs.  
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, test expenses, and other related college costs.

What is the timeline for the College Promise Campaign?

The Campaign anticipates running for a minimum of three-years. It officially started on September 9th, 2015 and is slated to end on August 31st, 2018, though it could run longer depending on the needs of communities and states.

How will progress be tracked and reported?

The Campaign will employ several methods for tracking progress, including:


“State of the College Promise Movement in America” Report—The Campaign will produce a metrics-based report on the state of the College Promise movement across the country that analyzes the depth of support for the policies, strategies, eligibility and continuation criteria, intended outcomes, and progress toward the Campaign’s goals.  This will include an analysis of the following:

  • Current landscape: the number of students receiving the College Promise
  • Analysis of stakeholder support:  elected officials, education leaders, business CEOs, etc.)
  • Analysis of forward momentum: communities and state legislatures taking action
  • Best-practice College Promise models: access and completion outcomes, and associated evidence from independent researchers

Campaign Activity Report—Every month, the Campaign tracks and measures the success of its ongoing activities, maintaining qualitative and quantitative reports on various metrics (e.g., engaged leaders, roundtables, engaged key constituency, press publications, social media metrics, etc.)

What can I do to support the College Promise?


  • Campuses, businesses, nonprofits, philanthropies, labor, K-12, and other organizations can sign up as partners here to be listed as a public supporter of and learn more about opportunities to promote College Promise.
  • Visit www.HeadsUpAmerica.us to participate in the Campaign’s awareness and outreach effort. Pledge your support, host an event, and ask your family and friends join as well.
  • Follow news and local developments about College Promise campaigns on our Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts. Share our posts with your networks. Meet with, call, and send letters of support for the College Promise to Administrators, elected officials, and other community leaders.
  • Talk with local and state business, labor, and nonprofit leaders and let them know your community is full of untapped potential because of educational and socioeconomic barriers, and that offering two years of college to everyone will bolster the workforce with a greater supply of diverse and qualified workers.
  • Write letters to your local newspaper editors and news producers about the importance of the College Promise.

Take Action!

Join the movement for free community college.