New AERA Book Examines the Landscape and Effects of College Promise Programs
New AERA Book Examines the Landscape and Effects of College Promise Programs

For Immediate Release: December 11, 2019

Tony Pals,
(202) 238-3235, (202) 288-9333 (cell)

New AERA Book Examines the Landscape and Effects of College Promise Programs

Research Volume Advances Evidence-based
Knowledge of “Free Tuition” and “Free College” Initiatives

WASHINGTON, D.C., December 11​, 2019—With college promise programs—also known as “free tuition” and “free college” programs—growing in popularity across the United States and with Democratic presidential candidates touting their own national free college proposals, the American Educational Research Association is publishing a new book titled Improving Research-Based Knowledge of College Promise Programs. The book, currently available for advance order, will be published in early January.

  • Note to Editors/Reporters: A complimentary PDF version of the book is available to journalists upon request. The PDF is for individual use only and is not for public distribution. Complimentary hardcopies of the book will be available once they are printed.

The book is the first known collection of scholarly chapters dedicated to research on an array of college promise programs. It presents original studies that examine the several categories and variations of college promise programs and their effects.

  • Click here to view the table of contents
  • Click here to download the editors’ introduction
  • Click here to advance order the book
  • Click here to read a Q&A with the coeditors
  • Click here to watch a short video of the coeditors discussing the book

“College promise programs are an emerging approach for increasing higher education attainment,” said coeditor Laura W. Perna, the GSE Centennial Presidential Professor of Education and executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania. “To maximize the effectiveness of these initiatives and investments, policymakers and program leaders need research-based evidence to inform program design, implementation, and evaluation. The goal of this volume is to address that knowledge need.”

The book features 13 research chapters that collectively address what is known from prior studies about the effects of promise programs; what the effects are of different types of college promise programs; what factors contribute to the establishment of promise programs; and where policymakers, program administrators, and researchers go from here.

College promise programs vary in the characteristics of the target population, financial award, eligibility requirements, and other dimensions. The chapters in this volume examine place-based scholarship programs that allow students to use the award at a range of postsecondary educational institutions as well as programs that offer a financial award to attend a single institution, including a community college or a designated four-year institution.

Chapters provide information on relatively well-established programs, including the Kalamazoo Promise and the El Dorado Promise, as well as on more recently established ones, including the Tennessee Promise, the Milwaukee Degree Project, and Michigan Promise Zones.

“Individually and collectively, the results of these studies offer useful insights for the design,  implementation, and evaluation of promise programs, if these programs are to create meaningful improvements in degree attainment for students from underserved groups,” said coeditor Edward J. Smith, a program officer in the Kresge Foundation’s Education Program. “The authors’ efforts also provide a useful foundation for the next generation of college promise research.”

“Among the questions policymakers, program administrators, and researchers should be considering are: Who benefits from the program? What are the implications for equity? What other supports are needed to ensure that students not only enroll in college but also earn a degree?” said Smith. 

Perna and Smith note in their introduction to the volume that “[a]lthough the notion of free college is not new, many promise programs have emerged across the United States over the past two decades. The movement now seems to be in full swing.”

As of August 2016, there were 23 college promise programs in California alone. State-sponsored free college programs in Tennessee, Oregon, New York, and New Mexico are other recent initiatives. At least 10 state candidates for governor in fall 2018 offered free college as part of their campaign platforms. The three Democratic presidential frontrunners—Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren—have free college proposals. 


About AERA
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Quick Links

Watch coeditors Laura W. Perna and Edward J. Smith discuss the book

Read the editors' introduction (open access)

View endorsements