Rapid Progress for Tuition-Free College Promise Initiatives

With the new federal administration gearing up in Washington, states and communities across the nation are taking action to promote affordable access to higher education. Throughout the nation, leaders are developing College Promise initiatives, which cover tuition and fees for students to attend a community college, technical school, or university. There are now over 190 of these programs in 40 states. Some use public funds, others use private dollars, and many use a combination of both. All share the common goal of making a college education more affordable for students to acquire the education and training they need for in-demand jobs. College Promise programs are also revitalizing local and state economic development efforts.

In last two months, five states took action to expand access to free higher education.

  • AR – On December 8, Governor Asa Hutchinson (R-AR) proposed the Arkansas Future Grant. Taking a page from the statewide program of its neighbor, Tennessee Promise, the program combines free community college or technical education for in-demand career paths and mentoring to guide students toward completing their certificate and degree programs.
  • NY – On January 3rd, Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) traveled to LaGuardia Community College to announce The Excelsior Scholarship, his proposal to offer free college tuition for low and middle-income students to attend New York’s public community colleges and state universities (CUNY and SUNY).
  • RI – Two weeks later, Governor Gina Raimondo (D-RI) proposed Rhode Island’s Promise, which would allow Rhode Island high school graduates to receive two years of free college tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities: Community College of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, and the University of Rhode Island.
  • HI – Meanwhile in the Aloha State, officials at the University of Hawaii proposed the Hawaii Promise. This program would fund tuition, fees, books, supplies, and transportation for students with financial need to attend any University of Hawaii community college.
  • TN – On Monday, in his State of the State Address, Governor Bill Haslam (R-TN) announced his plan to extend the Tennessee Promise – which is currently only available to recent high school graduates –  to Tennessee residents of any age. This expansion builds on the nationally recognized success of the Tennessee Promise, the nation’s first statewide free community college program.

Today, the College Promise Campaign is traveling to two events celebrating successful community-based College Promise programs.

  • In Arkansas, El Dorado is celebrating the tenth anniversary of its College Promise program. A decade ago, the Murphy Oil Corporation launched the El Dorado Promise – which covers tuition and fees for all El Dorado High School graduates who have attended EHS since the ninth grade. These students may attend any accredited college or university in the United States. The program’s results are impressive: stabilized high school enrollment, strong college-going culture, students pursuing more rigorous high school courses, and many more students going on to college. Today in El Dorado, 84% of high school graduates now go on to college compared with 50% statewide.
  • In California, Cuesta College is kicking off a campaign to raise $10M to expand their successful Cuesta Promise. These funds would be used to fund a second year of tuition and fees for San Luis Obispo County high school graduates. Retired Raytheon Chairman and CEO Bill Swanson, a Cuesta alumnus and College Promise National Advisory Board member, is joining Cuesta College President Gil Stork to make a business case for investing in free community college. Made possible with an $8M gift from the Charles and Leeta Dovica Family Trust, the Cuesta Promise has shown impressive results. Since the launch in 2013, the county has seen big increases in the number of high school graduates starting college, especially among those historically underrepresented in higher education. The expansion would allow students to complete their community college degrees, continue to a four-year university, and help close the skills gap for local employers.

“These successes of the growing College Promise movement lead the way for other communities to build a college-going culture and keep college affordable,” says Dr. Martha Kanter, the Executive Director of the College Promise Campaign and former U.S. Under Secretary of Education. “Communities and states are leading the way to create opportunity for their citizens and to build the educated workforce that employers need.”

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