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The Promise of Free College (And Its Potential Pitfalls)

In 2011, The Degree Project was launched in Milwaukee Public Schools, offering students at 18 randomly selected high schools the promise $12,000 to cover  tuition and fees at the local two-year college—making it a form of free or debt-free college. The funds could also be used to attend four-year colleges, covering more than one year of tuition, fees, and room and board. To receive the funds, students had to graduate on time from an MPS high school with at least a 2.5 cumulative GPA and a 90 percent class attendance rate, and fill out the FAFSA.

In The Promise of Free College (And Its Potential Pitfalls), a research team led by Douglas N. Harris found that the promise of free college had some impact on students’ motivation, college expectations, and steps toward college, such as applying to more colleges and FAFSA completion. But it had no effect on the performance measures—high school GPA and class attendance—and no effect on whether students went directly on to college. The most recent findings from the long-term study suggest that the scholarship may have slightly increased persistence and graduation in two-year colleges, though not in four-year institutions.