Giving Compass' Take:

• MDRC highlights lessons from the College Promise Success Initiative in making higher education more equitable. 

• What supports are colleges in your area already providing? How can funders help to improve, expand, and/or start programs informed by this research? 

• Read about the need for more support for first-generation college students

For low-income students, going to college is often viewed as an out of reach option. Many capable individuals never attempt to enroll, or do not stay in college because they lack much-needed support, both financial and otherwise. This contributes to the higher education achievement gap that divides low-income students and their higher-income counterparts, who enroll in college at much higher rates, and drop out at lower rates once enrolled. Over 300 College Promise programs established by communities and schools nationwide are attempting to close this gap.

Scholarships form the core of all College Promise programs: Eligible College Promise students receive scholarships that cover up to 100 percent of tuition and fees at postsecondary institutions. The College Promise movement seeks to transform perceptions about the affordability of college, give students the opportunity to earn college degrees without taking on significant debt, and significantly increase rates of college enrollment and completion.

But improving access to college addresses only part of the challenge for low-income students. College success and completion rates among the underserved students targeted by many College Promise programs remain unacceptably low, limiting these programs’ overall effectiveness. But new evidence — including the findings from MDRC’s evaluation of the Detroit Promise Path program — shows that building student support services into College Promise programs can have a meaningful effect on students’ academic progress.

In 2017, MDRC launched the College Promise Success Initiative (CPSI) to expand on this evidence. MDRC worked with six College Promise programs to implement a “diagnosis and design” process — identifying problems by assessing student and program needs, creating potential solutions, and enhancing their offerings through evidence-based improvements or new methods of student support. MDRC provided individualized technical assistance to each of these programs, helping them strengthen their student support services in coaching and advising, targeted communications, and financial incentives. For example, the coaching component of the Detroit Promise Path is designed to help students navigate academic and personal issues. Coaches meet with students twice a month, helping them resolve issues such as financial aid verification, referring them to existing college counselors or career advisors as needed, and addressing a range of topics from time management to food insecurity.

In November 2019, MDRC held a half-day gathering with staff from the programs in CPSI to reflect on lessons learned over the two-year initiative. This Issue Focus highlights two important lessons from this dialogue, offers links to some of the publicly available tools that were developed as part of CPSI, and briefly looks ahead at the future of the College Promise movement.

  1. Assemble the Right Mix of Stakeholders: Having an effective combination of stakeholders to shape and guide the program across multiple levels of management remains a major challenge for many College Promise programs, staff at the gathering said. These programs often have at least three levels of management: an executive level consisting of senior stakeholders with funding and authorization discretion; a functional level consisting of contributors responsible for program design; and a working level consisting of ground-level program staff and students.
  2. Make Equity Central to Your Program: Low-income students enroll in college at lower rates than their high-income peers, and the gap in graduation rates between the two groups is even wider. Program staff suggested addressing the dual challenges of college access and college success in tandem, a strategy that meeting attendees said could reduce both of these gaps.