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National Promise Scholarships Can Make Public Colleges Tuition Free (Updated)

We offer a sound policy idea and a carefully constructed strategic plan designed to make public colleges tuition free in all 50 states.

Photo of Norma Orozco

Written by

Who is the target audience for your idea and how does it reimagine the cost of college?

Our target audience includes public policy makers and influencers, philanthropists and foundations, community and state leaders, parents and students--all of whom have a stake in ensuring our nation’s higher education system is open to all regardless of family income so that we have the skilled workforce necessary to compete in a global economy.

Our four step plan for National Promise Scholarships accomplishes this goal while working within the frame of existing federal budgets to ensure that the quality of higher education is not compromised. But to get Congress to pass such legislation will require building a groundswell of support community by community, state by state based on residents experiencing the benefits of free college tuition for their youth.

Image title

Map of Promise Communities as of Dec. 2015

Luckily, such experiences already exist and continue to expand. Now we need to accelerate their growth and scale them up in order to reach a tipping point where the entire country demands a transformation of our public education system to include universal, free education from Pre-K through a bachelor’s degree.  

Under our plan, the federal government would provide a scholarship to any student enrolled in a public college or university at the level of the average cost of tuition for in state students in that state. States would not be allowed to ask any in state NPS scholar to pay any more for their tuition than this average amount, thereby creating an indirect cost control on the price of tuition which is rising at the fastest rate of any item in a family’s budget.

National Promise Scholarships would be available to any student whose family income is no more than $180,000 (the income level beyond which the current Opportunity Tax Credit for tuition payment ends) and who has demonstrated sufficient levels of high school academic performance to have been accepted for admission at any public institution of higher education.

Supporting evidence: A recent article by Think Progress states "Tuition at all public colleges came to $62.6 billion in 2012. The federal government could take the $69 billion it currently spends helping students cover the cost of college through grants, tax breaks, and work-study funds and instead simply cover tuition at those schools for anyone who wanted to attend. That would give all students of all income backgrounds an affordable option."

What early, lightweight experiment can you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

Our idea, inspired by the Kalamazoo Promise launched in 2005, came from a series of group discussions among higher education experts in 2013. The evidence from Kalamazoo, which has been in existence long enough to produce rigorous longitudinal studies, demonstrates the model works to improve high school performance, college enrollment, and college completion-- particularly among minorities and women. You can find the results of that research in the attached UpJohn Study on Kalamazoo Promise.

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

We spend a great deal of our resources in digital and traditional media developing new supporters and educating our target audience. Insights on group mobilization tactics and strategies for influencing opinion makers would be helpful, along with the resources to make it happen. We believe there’s an opportunity to create sustainable funding using the purchasing power of communities with accelerator assistance from OpenIDEO.

This idea emerged from

  • A group brainstorm

Are you interested in the Path to Pitching track we've developed for this challenge?

  • Yes

Evaluation results

12 evaluations so far

1. Does this idea make college more accessible, especially for low income students in the U.S.?

Yes! - 83.3%

To a degree - 16.7%

Not that I can tell - 0%

2. Does this idea think beyond current cost structures of college and activate new sectors or partners?

Yes! - 50%

It's attempting to - 16.7%

Not that I can tell - 33.3%

3. How excited are you about this idea?

I'm so excited I just can't hide it! - 66.7%

I'm pretty neutral in my excitement level - 8.3%

I don't feel very excited about this idea. - 25%

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Team (4)

Norma's profile
Morley's profile
Morley Winograd

Role added on team:

"Co-Founder. President of Campaign for Free College Tuition. Former Senior Policy Advisor to VP Al Gore."

Wyatt's profile
Wyatt Larkin

Role added on team:

"Wyatt Larkin is a Digital Strategist at Veracity Media, specializing in online political communications, social media, email fundraising, and web development."

Brian's profile
Brian Newman

Role added on team:

"Communications Director for the Campaign for Free College Tuition."

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Attachments (18)

Our Team Milestone 1.pdf

Team member bios and photos.

Milestones FinaL NPS.pdf

Findings on milestones 2, 3, 5, 7, 8 and 9. Our research and explanations.

Milestone 3.PNG

User Discovery: Low and middle income families cannot afford college. Research results.

Milestone 3B.PNG

User Discovery: Research shows the connections between education and employment.

Milestone 3C.PNG

User Discovery: Graph explaining the connections between college completion and economic inequality.

Milestone 4.PNG

Income is now dependent on degree attainment.

Milestone 4B.PNG

National Promise Scholarships are the answer!

Milestone 4C.PNG

Student loan debt has become a direct factor in satisfaction rates after college.

Milestone 6.PNG

Prototype: Kalamazoo Promise. Feedback, it improved the local school district.

Milestone 6A.PNG

Prototype: Kalamazoo Promise. Feedback, it improved students higher educational efforts

Milestone 6B.PNG

Prototype: Kalamazoo Promise. Feedback, it improved students college completion rates.

Milestone 6C.PNG

Prototype Results: Kalamazoo Promise. Kalamazoo Promise success rates vs. National success rates.

Milestone 8 Baldwin Prototype.pdf

Article on an existing promise program in Baldwin Michigan. The article highlights many community benefits to promise scholarships.

Milestone 10A.PNG

Explanation of NPS. Part 1.

CFCT_Plan -.pdf

Our full 4-step plan to make public colleges tuition free in all 50-states.

Effects of the Kalamazoo Promise Scholarship.pdf

Results on student success from rigorous Kalamazoo Promise study done by Upjohn Research Institute.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Jim Rosenberg

Hi Norma,

This is a really compelling vision. I particularly like the recognition that the campaign for free tuition is a long-term, grassroots effort (it made me think of some of the good articles on the slow, tactical, pragmatic approach that led to the recognition of gay marriage). I was wondering about the financial numbers for federal support. The Think Progress article you cite talks about taking the current Federal expenditures of approximately $69B and shifting them to cover the $62B in tuition cost for public universities. Is that current $69B in Federal spending going to students that attend all types of universities -- public, private, and for-profit? Would that Federal spending need to increase to cover 100% of tuition at public universities and still provide grants, etc. to students that go to private or for-profit schools? I liked how you discuss "Paying for Our Plan" for each component in your planning document, but I couldn't get my hands around the total cost of the program and how the sources add up to cover those costs. Maybe that's just a future prototype to tackle. Thanks and good luck with the idea!

Photo of Norma Orozco

Hey Jim,
Thank you for the very thoughtful question I am happy to elaborate some. The federal money will only be used to support complete free tuition at public colleges and universities at their in state tuition rates. However, students who decide to go to private or out of state colleges or universities could still receive the National Promise Scholarship and choose to use it at a private or out of state college or university, but then their tuition wouldn't be completely free. I hope this helps. 

Photo of Jim Rosenberg

Thanks Norma

Photo of Micah Bennett-Cauchon

Hi there! I recently participated in the OpenIDEO SF- Higher Ed Meetup and my group spent a few hours user journey mapping and prototyping your proposed solution. I'd love to send you photos and a brief write up of our work. Is there an email that'd be best to send to?

Photo of Norma Orozco

 That's great!  Thank you. You can send them to me at

Photo of Joanna Spoth

love this! Thanks for your work Micah Bennett-Cauchon & Norma Orozco & team! Norma, feel free to add OpenIDEO SF's feedback as an attachment on your post if your team found it helpful.

Photo of OpenIDEO

Welcome to the refinement phase Norma and team! We’re impressed by all the progress your team has made during the pilot of the National Promise Scholarships. We’re excited to see how this initiative can make widespread changes to college affordability at a national level.

In the Refinement phase we’re looking forward to learning more about the current experiments your team is working on. A helpful first step would be to update your idea post with a list of your new initiatives. We’d also love for you to highlight some of the key feedback you’ve collected and the next steps for how you might iterate forward. This would give the OpenIDEO community a better understanding of how we can support your project. In the upcoming weeks of Refinement, we're looking forward to learning more about what you would like to achieve with this idea and the next steps you might take to get there. For example, you might like to outline the action plans you’re currently experimenting with, the challenges you’ve recently encountered, and the partnerships your team would like to build. Developing a simple creative brief for how the OpenIDEO community might participate in the development of EduDream would be a fantastic way to collaborate with our global community:)

Here are some key questions and milestones we encourage from all ideas in the Refinement:
1. How might this idea address the unique needs of low-income families and first generation college students?
2. Clearly summarize the value proposition of your idea in 1-2 sentences
3. Identify assumptions that need to be answered in order to validate your value proposition.
4. Collect feedback from potential partners and users to answer the assumptions you’ve identified.
5. Communicate your idea in a visual way with user experience maps

Lastly, here's a useful tip: When you update the content of your post, it'd be helpful to indicate this in your idea title by adding an extension. For example, you can add the extension " - Update: Experience Maps 12/22" to you idea title. This will be a good way to keep people informed about how your idea is progressing!

We’re excited to see this idea progress in the next weeks!

Photo of Gary Ramon

I commend you on your plan!  Is the plan just to focus on public colleges or are you also considering expanding the scope to private colleges as well?  A stipend that is equivalent to the cost of a public education could be provided to students that qualify for your program but are interested in attending a private college or university.  In this scenario the students would then have to pay the difference between the cost of tuition and the stipend awarded.

Photo of Norma Orozco

Hey Gary,
Yes, very similar to what you laid out, our current plan for National Promise Scholarships does make them available for use at private colleges. National Promise Scholars would get the average value of an in-state tuition scholarship that they could use at any college they want, but without any benefits of Free Tuition. However that provision is subject to further cost/benefit analysis. I hope this answers your questions. Thank you for reading!

Photo of Alexandra Alden

Hey Norma! Alex here from Path to Pitching. Cool idea! Would you operate as a non-profit or a social enterprise? Could you tell us more about how you've prototyped/piloted it? 

Photo of Norma Orozco

Hey Alexandra.

The Campaign for Free College Tuition is already a registered 501c3 Non-Profit. Our prototypes flow from the efforts of other communities and states whose Promise Programs we try and encourage and on occasion consult with to help get them started. Our 4-Step Plan is modeled off of the Kalamazoo Promise, a community based promise program which offers free college tuition to local students. There have been extensive studies done on this program over it's ten years, most notably those done by the UpJohn institute. I have attached a pdf of their reports with our proposal. 

There are also over 40 other promise programs listed on our organizational website that we have used to help us formulate our model national promise program.

I hope this answers your question. Thank you for engaging and please let me know if you need further clarification or evidence.  

Photo of OpenIDEO

Congrats on this being today's Featured Contribution!

Photo of Joel Gingery

Very nice!   Comprehensive and inclusive, I like the way it takes college costs off the table for families, students and communities.    One of the problematic themes brought up in the interview concerns the rapid increase in college tuition, a major factor necessitating a program such as you suggest.  Do you expect this trend to continue and if so is it possible to address the situation using the promise program? 

Photo of Norma Orozco

Thank you Joel, great question. 

We certainly expect the trend to continue since it is built into the business model of today's universities. However, our Promise Scholarship idea addresses that situation, as we said in our submission, by introducing indirect cost controls on what the federal government is willing to pay for tuition reimbursement, i.e. the average cost of tuition in a state (with allowances for CPI increases). That coupled with creating a large pool of students with only that much money to spend on tuition should introduce some price and cost discipline into the market.