America has some of the lowest college graduates among developed nations (Monaghan & Attewell, 2015). Only six out of ten high school graduates go on to attain a bachelor’s degree (Long & Kurlaender, 2009). To help resolve this issue, states are creating promise programs in an effort to expand degree completion. Promise programs are designed to give college access to low income students who otherwise would not have the opportunity (Perna & Leigh, 2018). Most of these programs have narrowed the list of options to mostly local community colleges (Kelderman, 2010). In response to public concerns, local, state, and federal policies are helping to increase college access. In the past year, more states have begun pushing for legislation to fund free college programs (Page & Scott-Clayton, 2016). States benefit as these programs help the state fulfill their workforce needs. Politicians are investing in promise programs because their middle-class voters are increasingly worried about the rising costs of higher education. It also helps states lower their expenditures, if they support the less costly community college route (Kelderman, 2010). It is important for political leaders not to neglect degree completion in the name of increasing access.
Today there is an increase in attacks against education policy initiatives. Federally funded organizations like TRIO help to ensure college readiness and access. TRIO Upward Bound (UB) is a federally funded program for students in 9th through 12th grades which strives to help low-income, first-generation students with college readiness and the enrollment process. TRIO data and research show success in increasing higher education attendance and attainment from low-income, first-generation college students (Pitre & Pitre, 2009). I bring this up as I serve as a Project Leader and College Counselor for Richland College’s TRIO Upward Bound (UB) Program. I work closely with the Dual Credit high school students at North Garland High School. All of the students registered with us, identify as low income and/or first generation. First generation is defined as students who are the first to attend a postsecondary institution (Pitre & Pitre, 2009). Their parents have little to no experience in regards to college readiness, admissions, and the financial aid process. Many of their parents never pursued higher education because of the fear of debt and loans. Finance is just one of many reasons. Others might include preparedness, availability of postsecondary options, etc.
Out of 50 students, about half are enrolled in dual credit courses with Richland College. These students meet with me after school where our TRIO UB staff provide tutoring in core subjects. In August 2018, North Garland High School was added to the list of Dallas Promise schools. As their College Counselor, I help to facilitate the Dallas Promise Program. The Dallas Promise Program is designed to provide tuition to low income students who would not have otherwise had the opportunity to pursue higher education. It is important to note that Dallas Promise is a last dollar scholarship which means that federal and state grants are given to cover the costs of tuition. Whatever is left for tuition is covered by Dallas Promise. These grants usually pay for the tuition charged at community colleges, which makes it less expensive for Dallas Promise. Dallas Promise works directly with the Dallas County Community Colleges District (DCCCD). This requires our students who pledge with Dallas Promise to apply to a DCCCD campus rather than directly at any other four-year institution.
This is a hurdle we are facing. As a few of our high-achieving students have dreamed of attending highly ranked schools such as Rice University and University of Pennsylvania. Many students across the country face this phenomenon referred to as undermatching where students from less affluent households are not measured up to attend highly ranked institutions. Because of the Dallas Promise policies, these students are putting their dreams aside and applying to their local community college campus.
A second issue is the unintended consequence of diminish the chances that Promise students will achieve a bachelor’s degree since research shows that students who begin at a community college (instead of a four-year institution) are unlikely to complete a bachelor’s degree (Cohen, Brower, & Kisker, 2014). Students who entered community college first, had a 21.6 percent lower BA completion, compared to their peers at 4 year institutions (Reynolds & DesJardins, 2009). There was a 30 percent lower BA completion rate for community college students (Alfonso, 2006). Community college students had a 23% disadvantage in degree completion (Stephan, Rosenbaum, & Person, 2009). So, a program designed to assist with college access is instead interfereing with college choice.
North Garland High School has a 50% baseline for high school graduation. Federally, funded programs like TRIO provide staff like me to help students and their parents navigate getting into and through college. Pushing our students to pledge Dallas Promise may not be the best choice for our students. As it is, the students benefitting the most from this program are from middle to high income families who would have been able to attend college without the promise program (Cohen, Brower, & Kisker, 2014). These students’ backgrounds rarely qualify for financial aid and Pell grants, but they are able to take advantage of the Dallas Promise and benefit more from the program than those it was originally designed to serve.
I urge Dallas Promise to switch to a first-dollar scholarship. These maybe more expensive to carry out, but will be more beneficial to students from low income families. Unlike Last-dollar programs, First-dollar programs apply their funds to tuition first. This lets students disperse their grant money to other costs of college that go unnoticed. Tuition is not the only cost of college, but the living expenses and books and supply fees all add up whether they attend a two-year or four-year institution. Transportation, lodging, food, books and supplies are often not accounted for when discussing college costs.
I also recommend Dallas Promise to not only serve high school students, but adults who never had the opportunity to pursue higher education. Older people are enrolling to college now who are over the age of 25 (Wyatt, 2011). Dallas should look into serving these interested young Millennials get into higher education, whether it is for an Associate degree or vocational studies.
It is important to note that there are students who are transferring to four-year institutions. Future studies need to focus on promise students who out to four-year institutions as there is not much literature on transfer for promise students. In summary, Dallas Promise policies should switch to a first-dollar program, include four-year public institutions, ensure easy access, and open up opportunities for older non-traditional students. With these changes, the Dallas Promise can focus on actual student needs and remove affordability as a roadblock to college completion.
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