Will college promise programs improve or reduce equity? Understanding the contextual conditions that influence program implementation

Laura W. Perna, Jeremy Wright-Kim, Elaine W. Leigh


Although “free tuition” programs are politically popular, some worry that these programs will exacerbate inequity. Scholars note that program outcomes depend on implementation, but few have probed the contextual conditions that contribute to differences in implementation or the consequences of implementation for equity. To address this knowledge gap, we draw on conceptual models of implementation fidelity and case studies of last-dollar, free tuition programs at four community colleges. The consequences of an implemented program for equity depend on program content and coverage and are moderated by programmatic and organizational conditions. For the studied programs, implemented content includes the financial award and non-financial academic supports. Coverage is determined by eligibility requirements. Program content and coverage are moderated by programmatic characteristics, including program goals and placement in the organizational structure, program staffing, and recruitment strategies. Organizational conditions, including sources and availability of funding, availability of synergistic programs, capacity for data collection and evaluation, and perceptions of the community college also moderate implementation. The results inform understanding of how to implement programs at community colleges that increase equity in particular contexts.


college promise programs; free tuition; case study; implementation; community college; attainment; equity

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14507/epaa.29.5436

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