The Free College Handbook Presents Research on 'Promise' Programs

December 12, 2022

In the past fifteen years, education researchers have studied how best to design and operate tuition-free college initiatives. A new web-based handbook built upon these years of work has translated research on tuition-free college into actionable strategies for policymakers, civic leaders, college administrators and philanthropists.

The Free College Handbook: A Practitioner's Guide to Promise Research represents the collective efforts of a dozen researchers - including University of Pittsburgh research scientist Jennifer Iriti, who co-edited the volume, and LRDC postdoctoral fellow Danielle Lowry. Michelle Miller-Adams of the W.E. Upjohn Institute of Employment Research is also a co-editor. The publication, which can be viewed and downloaded here, was funded by the Kresge Foundation through a CoPro 2.0 grant to the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, where Iriti is a research affiliate of the Promise: Investing in Community research initiative.

Research on how best to design and operate tuition-free college initiatives, often called "Promise" programs, has been under way for 15 years but until now has not been comprehensively translated for use by policymakers and practitioners.

The handbook answers 25 questions related to three broad topics: 1) the rationale for Promise programs and their observed benefits; 2) the steps needed to build a Promise program, and; 3) factors that can enhance a program's success. The handbook covers tuition-free college programs launched by states, communities, and community colleges.

Miller-Adams and Iriti point out that while national action on tuition-free college has stalled, states and localities continue to innovate in this area, seeking to broaden the pipeline of students pursuing a post-secondary credential, reduce inequities in college access, and strengthen local economies and institutions.

According to Dr. Jennifer Iriti, deeply entrenched gaps between research and policy/practice spaces often means that what we know from systematic study of free college models isn't leveraged when practitioners and decision-makers are trying to solve critical local and state problems around education and the workforce. This handbook is specifically designed to translate that body of work into usable forms for those who must make decisions about allocation of resources and design of potential free college programs.

"From the start, the Handbook design was driven by centering the challenges, questions and needs of state and local policymakers, the central actors in seeding and growing Promise programs," Iriti said. "We conducted extensive interviews with a range of stakeholders to understand the tensions, trade-offs, push-back, and information needs that they have encountered in their efforts and used those insights to organize and focus the Handbook," she continued. "We are eager to hear from practitioners who use the Handbook and continue to strengthen it as a tool to support stronger ties between Promise research and practice."