Getting Smart About College Promise Programs: Research for Action & Penn AHEAD Launch Study of Local and State Programs

Educational research non-profit Research for Action (RFA) and Penn AHEAD, a research center dedicated to addressing pressing public higher education issues via research, have launched a multi-site, comparative study of state and local College Promise programs. Designed to lower or eliminate the cost of college attendance, Promise programs have been proliferating at both the local and state levels. Yet they operate in vastly different contexts and vary significantly along a number of dimensions as well. This study will examine how these differences influence Promise program effectiveness, and it will provide insight into which models work best in different contexts. It is designed to be of practical utility as states and localities consider both whether and how to design and implement these programs, and it will include a return on investment analysis as well.

"The idea of College Promise programs is simple and compelling, and this is one of the reasons that they have become so popular," said Dr. Kate Shaw, Executive Director of Research for Action. "But the devil is in the details. How these programs are designed and implemented--in terms of eligibility, funding type and source, reach--can greatly affect their overall impact and the degree to which they reduce, or exacerbate, inequity."

To ensure a nuanced and multi-faceted examination of Promise programs, the research team will draw on policy analysis, interviews, site visits and quantitative data from multiple sources. The study will employ a broad lens to: trace how both high schools and postsecondary institutions respond to promise programs; create a model for estimating return on investment; and examine how these programs affect students' college aspirations, preparation, and attendance/progress patterns.

"Promise programs have the potential to transform college-going culture in a community, or even across an entire state," said Dr. Laura Perna, Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and Executive Director of Penn AHEAD. "But there is no clear road map for what works best in particular contexts, and no research that systematically compares the efficacy of different approaches. Using the Promise program typology that Penn AHEAD has developed to select an array of study sites, our goal is to begin to fill that void." While a "one size fits all" approach is unlikely to work, the researchers aim to provide a menu of strong options, as well as emerging best practices.

This work is supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

For more information, please contact Dr. Kate Callahan ( or visit RFA or Penn AHEAD.