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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

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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.

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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
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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

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