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The Power of “Free” College: Reducing Racial and Socioeconomic Inequalities

Much has been written about the benefits of free-college programs for underserved students. But does the mere availability of such programs influence the way high school students think about their postsecondary options? A recent working paper by University of Pennsylvania researcher Taylor K. Odle found that college access policies–such as “promise” scholarships for students in particular community, region or states–affect students' expectations about attending college and completing degrees.

Using federal and private datasets, Odle found that the adoption of such a program led to an 8.5 to 15 percentage point increase in 11th graders’ expectations that they would attain an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. The increase were greatest among students from low-income families and racial minorities.  The study, the first of its kind to look at expectations, dovetails with prior research showing the influence of such programs on college attendance. It also underscores how these policies can reduce inequities in education.

-Andrew Edghill