Everyone’s Making Promises

At the federal, state, and local levels, college promise programs are proliferating.

According to the College Promise Campaign, run by an independent, non-governmental, nonprofit organization called Civic Nation, there are at least 227 different college promise programs active throughout the United States at 
the time of publication. Important nuances differentiate several different promise program models, but there’s no denying that the promise movement is catching on.

From individual institutions to governors to the 
U.S. Congress and even the White House, everyone’s been making promises lately. This time it isn’t politics as usual, though: we’re talking about college promises — programs that allow students to attend at least two years of community college without having to pay tuition or administrative fees.

College promise programs are being launched throughout the country, and almost every program has its own design, funding sources, requirements, and implementation processes. The first known college promise program was launched in 2005 when a group of wealthy anonymous donors in Kalamazoo, Michigan, funded a scholarship program that enables every graduate of the city’s public schools to attend college at little or no personal expense. In 2014, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam introduced the first statewide “Tennessee Promise” scholarship, funded by lottery income and an endowment created by the state’s general assembly. A year later, President Obama announced a national proposal called America’s College Promise “to make two years of community college free for responsible students, letting students earn the first half of a bachelor’s degree and earn skills needed in the workforce at no cost.” This led to the introduction of bicameral federal legislation, The America’s College Promise Act of 2015, as well as the establishment of new statewide programs in Oregon and Minnesota and local efforts at colleges in at least 13 states. 

According to the College Promise Campaign, run by an independent, non-governmental, nonprofit organization called Civic Nation, there are at least 227 different college promise programs active throughout the United States at the time of this publication. Important nuances differentiate several different promise program models, but there’s no denying that the promise movement is catching on.

Existing Programs

Tennessee Promise

For all Tennessee high school graduates.

The first state-wide college promise program, the Tennessee Promise provides five consecutive semesters of community or technical college education to residents of the state. The last-dollar program is designed not only to offer scholarships to students, but also to serve as a mentoring program. It also requires eight hours of community service. Funds may not be used for books or “cost of attendance fees” such as travel expenses. Students are required to enroll in and complete 12 credit hours per semester, maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA, complete community service requirements, and submit the FAFSA each year by February 15. To date, enrollment has exceeded expectations by 75 percent, according to Inside Higher Ed. For more information, go to

Salt Lake Community College Promise 

For low-income students, supported by institutional budget.

In March, Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) in Utah announced SLCC Promise, “a commitment to help pay tuition and fees for full-time students who receive partial Pell Grant funding.” The program is made possible by a reallocation of internal college resources, according to Salt Lake City’sDeseret News; a significant portion will come from moving merit-based scholarship funding to the needs-based SLCC Promise program. Unlike some programs, the SLCC Promise is available only to low-income students who qualify for Pell Grant funding. Students must also be residents of Utah, take 12-18 credit hours per semester, be enrolled in a degree program with under 90 attempted credit hours, maintain a 2.0 minimum cumulative GPA and complete at least 80 percent of attempted courses. The SLCC Promise program begins in fall 2016. More information is available

Kalamazoo Promise & Baldwin Promise

Independently supported by community donors.

The Kalamazoo Promise, launched in 2005, awards all resident graduates of Michigan’s Kalamazoo Public Schools the majority of tuition and mandatory fees for four years at any public community college or university in the state. The Kalamazoo Promise is funded by a small group of anonymous donors. The award is based on the number of years students attended Kalamazoo Public Schools: students who attended the system their entire lives receive 100 percent funding; those who attended grades 9-12 receive 65 percent. (Students who joined the school system after the ninth grade do not receive Kalamazoo Promise scholarships.) In addition to residence and attendance requirements, students must make regular progress toward a degree or certificate, maintain a minimum 2.0 college GPA, and complete a minimum of 12 credit hours. A long-term study conducted by the Upjohn Institute found that the Kalamazoo Promise increased graduation, college application and admission, enrollment and retention, and high school graduation rates, as well as improved student outcomes and behavior. The Upjohn Institute also observed a possible secondary effect of attracting new residents to the Kalamazoo Public Schools district, increasing housing values, adding new resources to the area, and helping to develop the urban core. For more information, go to

Inspired by the Kalamazoo Promise, the Baldwin Community Schools district launched the Baldwin Promise in 2009. The school district is located in a rural, relatively less wealthy part of Michigan that isn’t home to wealthy philanthropists — so instead, residents of the community came together to raise funds for a four-year, $20,000 college scholarship for every Baldwin high school graduate. Go to for more information.

Oregon Promise

For all high school graduates and GED recipients.

The Oregon Promise, passed by the state legislature in 2015, allocates $10 million in state funding to cover tuition for Oregon community college students. The bill grants a minimum of $1,000 to every community college student. Recipients of the scholarship must have lived in Oregon for at least 12 months prior to enrolling, received a high school diploma or GED, earned a minimum 2.5 high school GPA, enroll in a degree-, certificate-, or transfer-seeking program within six months of high school graduation, and maintain a 2.5 GPA. 

Forthcoming Program

America’s Promise Grants

$100 Million U.S Department of Labor-funded 
grant competition. 

In April, the White House announced that the Department of Labor will launch a new $100 million America’s Promise Grants program early this summer. According to the White House, the program will “create and expand innovative regional and sector partnerships between community colleges and other training providers, employers, and the public workforce system to create more dynamic, tuition-free education and training programs for in-demand middle- and high-skilled jobs across the country.” The goals are to increase opportunities for all Americans, expand employer engagement, and strengthen education and training performance through expanded access to community college education.

Proposed Program

America’s College Promise Act of 2015

National proposal to create federal-state partnership to 
waive community college tuition and fees.

Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Congressman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) introduced the America’s College Promise Act into the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives last July. Through the America’s College Promise Act, the federal government would contribute approximately 75 percent of the national average cost of attending community college (about $3,800). Participating states would be required to contribute the remaining 25 percent, as well as develop and report on plans to better align and reform education within their respective states. 

The proposed legislation would be a “first-dollar” promise program that, unlike the active state- and local-level programs discussed above, would allow students to receive needs-based federal Pell Grants funding in addition to the full cost of tuition and fees to attend community colleges. This designation could greatly benefit many community college students whose financial barriers to higher education often include such expenses as travel, daycare, and other living expenses. And unlike most college promise programs, half-time students who cannot afford to attend college full time could receive benefits. Finally, the bill establishes a new grant program to provide pathways to success at Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) by helping them cover a significant portion of tuition and fees for the first two years of low-income students’ attendance. 

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