AERA Q&A: Coeditors Laura Perna and Edward Smith Discuss the New AERA Book Improving Research-Based Knowledge of College Promise Programs

Laura W. Perna

November 2019

In December, AERA will be releasing a new book on Improving Research-Based Knowledge of College Promise Programs. This volume emanated from an AERA Research Conference aimed at addressing research- and research-driven pathways for college promise programs. The book is now available for pre-publication purchase.

In the following Q&A, Laura W. Perna and Edward J. Smith, coeditors of the new AERA volume, discuss the college promise movement and important takeaways from this ground-breaking book.

Edward J. Smith

Perna is the GSE Centennial Presidential Professor of Education and executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania, and Smith is a program officer in the Kresge Foundation’s Education Program.

What is the college promise movement?

Smith: Education leaders and researchers often use the term “movement” to describe the rapid emergence of college promise programs over the last decade. Once considered an intriguing vessel through which economically distressed cities could increase college enrollment and retain human capital, these programs have evolved into a popular public policy prescription to make postsecondary education more affordable. In many cases, the programs have been propagated at the state and federal levels in the absence of evidence on their outcomes and with little attention to their impact on affected communities.

Perna: We define college promise programs as programs that have a goal of improving higher education attainment for people living in designated places by providing a financial award above and beyond existing grant aid. They have a place-based eligibility requirement (such as attending a particular K–12 school or living in a particular community), in addition to, or in lieu of, academic or need-based criteria. Programs have different names (e.g., college promise, free tuition, etc.) but programs—and proposals—with these characteristics are emerging at the federal, state, and local levels.

What are the most important takeaways from this volume for policy and practice?

Perna: College promise programs differ in many ways. They have different eligibility requirements, they offer different financial awards and other student supports, and they are implemented in different contexts. This volume stresses the importance of attention to program design. Program design determines who receives—and who does not receive—the benefits of a promise program. And program design determines what those benefits are.

Smith: This volume offers evidence on the effects of several variations of college promise programs for students and considers how the programs may impact communities and colleges. As debates about “free college” and “free tuition” continue, we hope policymakers, education leaders, and researchers will turn to this volume to understand what is known about programs that are now operating in different communities and states.

What are some of the ways that college promise programs might help to improve higher education attainment?

Perna: College promise programs may improve higher education attainment by (1) providing a financial aid award that reduces the cost of college; (2) providing a clear, simple message that college is affordable; and/or (3) recognizing and addressing other barriers that limit college access and success for students from underserved groups. Whether programs accomplish these goals depends on program design and implementation.

Smith: College promise programs might help improve higher education attainment if they can catalyze improvements within our nation’s P–12 and postsecondary institutions. Ideally, college promise programs will operate in partnership with middle and high schools to promote college readiness and nourish students’ postsecondary aspirations. Colleges that benefit from the cash these programs provide should build on these initiatives to provide  holistic supports for their students.

College promise programs must remain financially viable if they are to help improve higher education attainment. If the financial models supporting these programs are unsustainable, program leaders may be forced to modify their programs in ways that undercut college completion and educational equity. As other education researchers and leaders have observed, if college promise programs supplant other college-going resources, such as need-based aid, they are unlikely to serve as an effective way to improve higher education attainment.

Why did you decide to edit this volume?

Perna: Despite considerable investment by federal and state governments, colleges and universities, philanthropic organizations, and other entities, college attainment rates continue to vary based on demographic characteristics and based on the places where people live and the schools they attend. College promise programs are emerging across the United States as a potential solution. As a scholar who is deeply committed to increasing equity in college access and attainment, I feel an obligation to apply data and research to understand whether and how new programs can achieve their goals and whether they can improve equity in higher attainment.

Smith: I have a responsibility to analyze the policies and programs that will affect my community and all who will navigate education landscapes after me. I would like to see college promise programs reach their potential, and that may not happen without research that unearths the data on the best of what they can offer to society. I was honored to support the work of a diverse array of scholars who used varied theoretical frameworks and methods to uncover and interpret evidence on the effectiveness of promise programs. As someone who studies such programs, I was inspired by the contributors’ responsible interrogation of the programs. I hope this volume will prompt the next frontier of research on the subject.

From the time you started this project to the book’s release, what has surprised you the most?

Smith: I have been surprised to see debates about “free college” and “tuition-free college” programs take center stage in the presidential election season. This attention has elevated the discourse on college affordability and our nation’s investment in higher education. I have also been pleasantly surprised to see continued research on promise programs from many of the scholars featured in this book.

What is your main goal for this volume?

Perna: I hope this volume will advance research-based knowledge about the effects of programs with different design features for different groups of students. I hope that other researchers will build on these studies to continue to advance what we know about the full range of short- and long-term effects of emerging programs for students and for K–12 schools, colleges and universities, communities, and other stakeholders.

Smith: I hope education and civic leaders will use this volume to make college promise programs more equitable in their design and implementation, and more financially sustainable. I hope they will use the volume to build an even stronger future for the students, families, and communities that these programs serve.

How did you decide which topics to include in the volume? 

Perna: The papers that are included in this edited volume are the product of a several-year process. With financial support from the AERA Education Research Conferences Program and Penn AHEAD, I worked with Martha Kanter and Mary Rauner to disseminate a call for proposals in January 2017. We selected a subset of the submitted proposals for presentation at a conference held at Penn in October 2017. The papers then went through several rounds of review and feedback, with comments from discussants at the conference, from Ed, and me, and from blind peer reviewers and the AERA Books Editorial Board. Ed and I very much appreciate the engagement of the authors and of so many other individuals in the process of producing this volume.

Note: Improving Research-Based Knowledge of College Promise Programs, which will be released in December, is now available for pre-publication purchase.