Free college programs are associated with a larger enrollment of first-time, full-time students, with the most notable boosts going to individuals who identify as Black and/or Hispanic. That’s according to a new paper by Denisa Gándara at Southern Methodist University and Amy Li at Florida International University.

For their study, Gándara and Li analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System for academic years 2000-01 to 2014-15 to determine the impact of 33 free (or “promise”) programs at 32 community colleges.

They found colleges that offered promise programs saw overall enrollments increase by an average of 23 per cent in the timeframe studied.

When compared to the nearest seven community colleges, schools with promise programs experienced:

  • A 47 per cent increase in enrollment of Black males;
  • A 51 per cent increase in enrollment of Black females;
  • A 40 per cent increase in enrollment of Hispanic males; and
  • A 52 per cent increase in enrollment of Hispanic females.

Promise-program colleges did not see a measurable increase in students identifying as Asian, Native Hawaiian, and/or Pacific Islander, the paper notes. 

Other findings reinforce prior research suggesting that promise programs impacted enrollment more than tuition and fee reductions.


One limitation to the paper is the data set used, which was recorded well before the pandemic hit and changed the 2020-2021 academic year.

All of the uncertainty has community college enrollments trending downward, forcing budgetary cuts and putting some of the more than 400 nationwide promise programs at risk.

And for the students able to participate in promise programs remotely this year, some may be without on-campus resources, like proper equipment or a reliable internet connection.

It’s not yet clear if promise programs provided any boosts this year and, if so, which communities saw the most enrollments. But in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Li says she expects enrollment upticks will remain relatively consistent, despite the pandemic.

“As long as the promise programs continue to be funded and available, I do think they will be slightly helpful for college enrollments to stay steady and rebound for full-time, first-time students,” Li told the publication.

Gándara and Li are calling on lawmakers and officials to maintain funding for promise programs, despite the pressures schools are facing this year.

“The budget pressures facing states are very real, as is the developing crisis in college enrollment among the country’s least advantaged students,” Li said in a statement.

“Given such encouraging evidence of the effectiveness of community college promise programs on initial college enrollment, working to protect them should be among the top priorities of policymakers.”

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