Promise Programs Offer Hope to Students

These location-based scholarships offer students money for college and could strengthen communities.

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A group of anonymous donors launched Kalamazoo Promise in 2005 to provide full tuition for public school students in the community.

The cost of postsecondary education in America has risen so high it is unaffordable for many to pursue the education necessary for success in this competitive job market. Individuals who have taken out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans to achieve their dreams can be left to carry the burden of student debt.

Imagine instead that we lived in a society where the wealthy voluntarily invested a portion of their money in education for those who are unable to afford it. What would our society look like?

While it seems too good to be true, this scenario exists as what are called "promise programs" in local communities around the country. "The Promise of 'Promise' Programs," a paper by Rodney J. Andrews, assistant professor of economics at the University of Texas, explores the potential of these programs as tools to fund postsecondary education.

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According to Andrews, a promise program is "a local place-based scholarship program that offers near-universal access to funding for postsecondary education."

These programs can be particularly beneficial for students who can least afford to pay for college – and who, therefore, tend to take out the most in student loans.

Promise programs differ from merit-based scholarships in four ways. First, the funding is uniquely dependent upon the generous donation of donors. Sometimes, there is a connection between a particular donor and the community he or she is giving the money to.

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Promise programs are also local. The amount of money students receive is contingent upon their years of residency in the community where the program is established.

Third, promise programs are created with the anticipation that students will remain within their communities to drive local markets. And finally, unlike merit-based scholarships, promise programs do not require students to meet an academic bar to qualify, and they therefore enable greater access for more students.

A paradigmatic example is the Kalamazoo Promise. It was launched in November of 2005 by a group of anonymous donors to pay full tuition for students who resided and attended public schools in Kalamazoo, Mich. Its success and the national attention it received have spurred the creation of similar programs across the country.

According to Andrews, successful promise programs such as the Kalamazoo Promise are transparent: Local students and parents know that money is available for them to enroll in a local postsecondary institution once they complete high school. This is an important incentive for students to remain motivated and increase college enrollment.

Promise programs are also easy to understand, a significant advantage for students and parents who lack experience navigating the convoluted college admissions and financial aid process. And they can help create a significant support network.

In an interview, Andrews repeatedly emphasized that promise programs can cultivate a sense of common responsibility to educate students and, as a result, create stronger communities.

However, promise programs also have significant limitations. Since they are solely dependent upon the support of generous donors, funding may not be stable. And as Andrews noted, they are much easier to fund and implement in small localities versus, for example, densely populated and transient cities.

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Moreover, promise programs are a novel development, and it is unclear how many communities can replicate them effectively. Communities that want to create promise programs will have to find ways to access wealthy individuals, businesses or other resources able to provide stable and long-term funding.

While promise programs are not yet a universally available or always sustainable means to finance a student's higher education, they are not a pipe dream either. Given the high cost of postsecondary education, parents and students should be aware, as Andrews put it, that "promise programs are to be among the portfolio of resources for students to draw from." You can find a list of promise programs here.

As always, we also have comprehensive student debt resources you can draw upon. To get the scoop on how you can benefit from programs like Public Service Loan Forgiveness, register for one of our free student debt webinars or get a copy of our comprehensive e-book "Take Control of Your Future."

Mai Brand is an operations coordinator with Equal Justice Works' Educational Debt Relief program. She first worked with educational debt relief issues as an intern at Equal Justice Works and is a recent graduate of Loyola University Maryland.