Published on 2017/04/04
The EvoLLLution | Making the College Promise a National Reality, One City at a Time
The College Promise Campaign offers the possibility for greater numbers of individuals of all ages to get the critical knowledge and skills they need to succeed in today’s labor market, but there’s work to be done by leaders at every level of America’s education ecosystem.

Since America’s College Promise Proposal was introduced in 2015, there has been ferocious debate around whether it’s realistic to make postsecondary education accessible to everyone at low to no cost. Of course, College Promise programs have existed for longer than that. Since 2009, the number of College Promise programs offered by colleges and universities across the United States has grown to over 200 and it continues to rise. The march toward total postsecondary access is well and truly underway, but there’s still work to be done. In this interview, Martha Kanter, former Under Secretary of Education, shares her thoughts on why the College Promise campaign has grown so vigorously and outlines the roadblocks standing in the way of its further growth.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why has the number of College Promise programs nearly quadrupled—from 53 to more than 200—over the last eight years?

Martha Kanter (MK): The College Promise movement is growing exponentially because many education, business, government and philanthropy leaders across the country recognize that a high school education is no longer sufficient to prepare students for success in the workforce and in the rest of their lives. These leaders—community college and university presidents, elected officials, policy makers, researchers, corporate CEOs and foundation presidents—are spreading the word that success in the 21st Century depends on the opportunities Americans can harness to complete a two- or four-year college degree, or at a minimum, a technical certificate or apprenticeship training to advance beyond a high school education.

In the last 20 months, cross-sector leaders in 41 states have drawn inspiration from those first 53 College Promise programs, knowing that our country can no longer afford to leave students unprepared for the workforce. Republican and Democratic lawmakers at the local, state and federal level recognize that if we want to drive our social, economic and civic prosperity, we need to have a more educated society. And they realize that it makes good economic and civic sense to cover, at a minimum, the first two years of college tuition and fees for eligible hardworking students.

With college costs soaring and student debt at an all-time high, far too few students seek or complete a higher education. And for those who do, many are burdened with decades of debt.

That’s where College Promise comes in. If our leaders, working together, can make the first two years of higher education as universal and affordable as a K-12 education has been in the 20th century, more students will start and complete a college education with the knowledge and skills for the careers they will pursue throughout their lives. That’s good for students, families, local economies and the prosperity of our nation as a whole.

A generation ago, the United States led the world in the number of college graduates; today we are 12th. If more states and communities enable students to complete higher education without the burden of crushing debt, more Americans will seek an education that today seems unaffordable and out of reach for too many people, especially those from lower socioeconomic sectors of our population. We want, once again, for our country to have the greatest number of well educated, career-ready college graduates in the world.

When we launched our campaign on September 9, 2015 at Macomb Community College in Warren, MI, we assembled a high-performing National Advisory Board composed of 37 leaders from education, business, philanthropy, labor, non-profit organizations, government, and students. Chaired by Dr. Jill Biden and former Wyoming Governor Jim Geringer (R-WY), this dynamic board has actively worked—above and across party lines and special interests—to engage leaders from their respective sectors and communities to encourage states and localities to design and implement College Promise programs. We believe their public advocacy and their strategic support have done a tremendous amount to build momentum for the College Promise Campaign.

We also believe that the campaign’s communications and advocacy efforts have been effective at building awareness leading to increased public support. Through social media, op-eds, letters to editors, and website promotions like the Free College Video Competition, we have worked tirelessly to make the case that the need for the College Promise is urgent. Among our most effective tools are student stories; as we move ahead with the campaign, we believe that a great way to showcase the power of the College Promise is to demonstrate how students’ lives have been empowered through access to higher education, especially those students for whom college would not have been possible without the added benefit of the College Promise.

In our drive to build broad support for the College Promise, we have supported a rich body of research for local communities and states to leverage as they create and sustain their College Promise programs. The availability of data to illustrate College Promise outcomes related to college access, retention and persistence helps guide the decisions and actions of local and state leaders. Every new program that gets established presents an opportunity for researchers and evaluators to gather more evidence to demonstrate the impact of the College Promise movement and for policymakers and legislators in neighboring communities and states to see the value proposition for replication.

Members of the College Promise Advisory Board are taking action to boost our campaign. Here are a few examples to demonstrate the kind of work they do to build broad public support:

In New York, two of our board members, Dr. Nancy Zimpher, Chancellor of the State University of New York, and Dr. Gail Mellow, President of LaGuardia Community College, have worked tireless to promote the College Promise in their state, penning op-eds, mentioning it in speaking engagements and hosting events on campus. We believe that their advocacy is making a difference in moving “free college through the Excelsior Scholarship initiative” forward in state legislation.

Bill Swanson, Retired Chairman and CEO of Raytheon, co-authored an editorial praising the College Promise program at his community college alma mater, Cuesta College. In that piece, he and Cuesta College President Gil Stork made a business case for making a community college education affordable for all. He also traveled to campus to help launch a $10-million fundraising effort to extend the Cuesta Promise to cover a full two years of community college tuition. This kind of effort, from an internationally recognized business leader, certainly boosts our momentum.

The College Promise movement is growing all over the country, especially in California, where there are more than fifty programs announced or underway. The growth has been explosive. In the past year, programs are emerging in cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and Oakland. But also in rural and suburban communities too: Barstow, Cuesta, Siskiyous and San Marcos.

What accounts for the increased momentum in California? First, California is building on its longstanding Master Plan commitment to making and keeping public higher education accessible and affordable. Second, lawmakers throughout the state are drawing inspiration from every single program that is proposed or established in their respective region. Every new program offers an opportunity for communities to consider innovative ways to model sustainable College Promise programs tailored to meet local student needs, build a vibrant workforce and spur regional prosperity.

Last August working with leaders in California, the College Promise Campaign sponsored a statewide conference to build on lessons learned and expand local College Promise support. The two-day event was sold out. Interest in the movement was so strong that two new gatherings will take place later this year, one in Northern California and the other in the south.

Public and private support continues from College Promise Advisory Board Members like Scott Svonkin, President of the Board of Trustees of the Los Angeles Community College District, who has worked closely with Mayor Garcetti to build support for the LA Promise. West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon has been a champion of the College Promise in a wide range of public venues and successfully led a referendum last November to establish free community college programs for eligible students in his city. And business executives Wade Randlett and Don Proctor have led the way in making the high-technology industry aware of the dire need to keep college affordable to increase the talent pipeline and, thus, economic development.

We’ve also had a huge push from Dr. Eloy Oakley, who led the movement to establish the Long Beach Promise, when he was president of Long Beach City College. Now chancellor of the California Community Colleges, Dr. Oakley continues to boost awareness of the value of the College Promise. Last year, he was recognized by President Obama as a Champion of Change for his work on behalf of community colleges.

One specific outcome of the California College Promise momentum is the 14 community college districts, representing 33 community colleges, that received $15 million in competitive grants to expand or establish College Promise programs. This one-time funding in the 2016-17 budget was awarded by the California Community College Chancellor’s Office to programs that show the greatest promise for improving college readiness, access and overall student success.

Evo: How realistic is a future where the College Promise is a reality for every prospective student—both traditional and non-traditional—in every municipality across the United States?

MK: A similar question was asked 100 years ago, at the advent of the free high school movement. At that time, we began our shift as a nation from an agrarian economy to a more industrial society and there was a need to train people for jobs that required more education. People worried that communities could not afford to pay for universal high school. But leaders at that time recognized the vital importance of preparing students with the knowledge and skills needed for the changing economy; they knew that in order for the United States to be economically competitive they needed to invest in a universal high school education, state by state. Slowly over the years, they did!

What was the result after every state made high school free? We had the most highly educated and trained workforce in the world. By the middle of the 20th century, free high school coupled with free or nearly free public community college and university opportunities in addition to the GI Bill for veterans returning home, meant our nation reaped the benefits of having the greatest number of college graduates and the most highly skilled workforce in the world. Today, a generation later, we have lost first place. We are now 12th. We can do better than that in the 21st century. That is our challenge!

Many people today question the value of free community college, concerned about the costs to their communities and local economies. But let’s consider asking ourselves: What will happen if we don’t invest in our people and enable them to get an education beyond high school? What will happen if we don’t prepare students for 21st-Century jobs? We will fall further behind in our global competitiveness. If we don’t invest in preparing our workforce as other countries do, we will fall further behind. It’s that simple.

Early impacts of College Promise programs show significant increases in enrollment of first generation, underrepresented, underserved student populations, increased persistence from semester to semester, increased college aspirations in youth, reductions in the number and size of college loans students take, and a doubling of College Promise programs in 41 states over the past few years.

The College Promise Campaign supports communities and states to design economically sustainable College Promise programs that leverage multiple funding streams, evidence-based educational interventions, and behavioral incentives to increase student success in the 21st century. A College Promise for All is possible. It depends on building the will of our people across the sectors of government, business, education and philanthropy to ensure that an education beyond high school is an expectation for every American. If we can make the case to America that college graduates as well as those who have completed postsecondary certificates earn more, have a higher probability of being employed, utilize fewer government resources, are healthier and happier, and pay their fair share of taxes, we may well be able to realize the College Promise for All.

Evo: What are some of the most challenging roadblocks you see standing in the way of achieving that goal?

MK: There are two key roadblocks standing in the way of a nationwide expansion of the College Promise.

First, building widespread understanding that education beyond high school is critical for success in the 21st century is a challenge when nearly half of adult Americans never went beyond a secondary education. It was good enough for an assembly line job in the 20th century, but jobs have changed and the skills required for success in the majority of jobs necessitate education beyond high school.

Second, we have a college completion challenge with nearly half of students not completing their two- or four-year degrees in six years. Putting solutions in place to give students the support they need to enter and complete college is critical. Mentors make a huge difference. So do guided pathways so students can follow a clear plan and the required courses to meet their college and career goals. High-quality courses and programs of study taught by professors who inspire students to solve problems, engage in the hard work of learning, and reinforce their confidence have an enormous impact on student achievement. The cost of funding the College Promise is also a challenge for communities, but over the next few decades, our nation will enjoy the largest transfer of wealth from this generation to the next in our history. We pay for what we value. We cannot imagine a more importance investment in our nation’s future than making higher education universally available and affordable for all.

Evo: What are the responsibilities held at each level—federal government, state government, municipal government and higher education leadership—to making the College Promise a national reality?

MK: To make College Promise a national reality we need buy-in at all levels of government as well as support from education, business and philanthropic leaders in our local communities and states.

While the drive to develop and expand College Promise programs is happening at the local and state level, we need the federal government to continue its commitment to fund Pell grants for low-income students, work-study, and other forms of federal student aid. The federal government has the opportunity ahead to reduce the interest rates on student loans, to reduce the number and complexity of student loans, to simplify or even eliminate the student aid application process because the government already has the information about family income, to support TRIO, GEAR UP and other federal programs to help low-income students achieve high school graduation and college success, and to spur innovation to increase student achievement. These solutions have had bipartisan support in the past. Let’s hope our federal leaders can join together to do their part in retaking first place in the world in the number of college graduates ready to lead our nation forward in the 21st century.

At the state level, lawmakers must be responsible to build and sustain the College Promise for current and future generations. Promise program designs must have a sustainable infrastructure so students can start and complete their postsecondary education and communities can be assured that students are well prepared for the careers they will enter and to contribute to the communities in which they will live and thrive.

Municipal leaders, especially mayors and heads of social and community service agencies should reach out to education leaders at all levels and come to a common table to address the opportunities and challenges they face together. Too many local leaders work in silos. Working together, new opportunities can be harnessed, efficiencies gained, and relationships deepened to increase student and community success for the long-term. One has only to look at College Promise programs that have been in place for more than a decade to see the results gleaned in local economic development and social cohesion.

In addition, at both the local and state level, leaders must build a pipeline approach with the early learning and K-12 sectors to build the right mix of educational supports and interventions that create a college-going culture for the long-term. Higher education must reach out to early-learning and K-12 leaders at the administrative, faculty and student levels to create and sustain the critical partnerships that tackle the most pressing problems of education like the drop-out rate, attendance, the need to work, nutrition, and other challenges faced by too many students that inhibit college aspirations and success. We must work to achieve an all-in commitment where leaders at all levels of education, government, business and philanthropy can collaborate, share ideas, solve problems and support the fundamental concept that education is an investment, not an expense, for the success of current and future generations.

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Key Takeaways

  • Regional champions are critical to expanding the College Promise campaign to new municipalities and states, as is the collection and sharing of data on existing Promise programs.
  • The advent of free high school programs in the early 20th century received the same skepticism as the College Promise Campaign is receiving now, but access to postsecondary education is absolutely critical to improving the labor market readiness for people across the United States.
  • Leaders at every level of the education environment—from federal and state government all the way to local K-12 systems—have unique responsibilities in making the College Promise a reality.
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