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Keeping the College Promise Past Two Years

13 Minute Read


President Biden released his American Families Plan, which proposed to provide $142 billion to expand the Pell program and “invest in completion and retention activities” for colleges and universities. In addition to retention and completion initiatives, the President also proposed $109 billion for college promise programs so that “every student has the ability to obtain a degree or certificate.”

This broad vision to promote access and equitable outcomes indicates that access is no longer simply enough. Colleges and universities must also continue to focus on “completion and retention activities” to continue to narrow equity and completion gaps. Since 2005, promise programs have sought to offer low or no-cost college to students at a particular institution or area of the United States. In 2015, there were 53 promise programs across the United States, and in the past six years, that number has expanded to more than 360 in 47 states according to College Promise.

During this time, there has been much research conducted on the efficacy and value of these programs. The insights that higher education stakeholders should think about based on these findings include: 

  1. Promise Programs Are Not a Silver Bullet for What Is Ailing Higher Education

  2. Focus On First-Year Success

  3. Reconsidering General Education Offerings Is Necessary

  4. Defining and Refining Pathways Is Crucial

  5.  Effectively Integrate Two-Year Pathways Into Four-Year Institutions Through Robust Transfer Agreements

  6. Consider Modalities When Exploring How Best To Support Your Students 

Click the insight above to dive into the area that interests you most, or keep reading to start from the top!

Insight 1: Promise Programs Are Not a Silver Bullet for What is Ailing Higher Education
Many institutions and states are experiencing a decline or flatlining of the traditional higher education population (students aged 18 – 24), a trend that will likely continue, due in part, to declining fertility rates. Some policymakers are turning to promise programs to attract students who may not have traditionally thought college was affordable for them, or students aged 25 and older as a means of potentially stabilizing enrollment and attracting historically under-represented students.

Michigan is one example of a state that has grown less than two percent in the past twenty years. During this time, the traditional age of college-going students also increased by only about two percent. To attempt to reinvigorate college-going culture in Michigan, the state has sought to expand access through the Michigan Reconnect scholarship, which offers free community college for students who apply. Within the first few months of the program, 67,000 students applied, an unprecedented number for a program designed to reconnect those 25 and older with colleges and universities.

While the progress toward expanding access to higher education in Michigan is laudable, it is important to note that attracting students is just one part of a larger goal of graduating students.


Insight 2: Focus On First-Year Success
Whether students are beginning at your institution with the intent to graduate, or plan to transfer, the first-year experience is the most predictive of whether students will graduate. Research has consistently found that students with a full schedule of 15 credit hours each semester, who are able to complete their Math and English gateways, are significantly more likely to be retained and graduate on time. Students can get ahead of the completion goal by taking additional courses in the summer. Those who complete summer courses at four-year institutions are 15 percent more likely to graduate within five years.

When planning a first-year experience for your students, it is crucial to provide wrap-around services that might help sustain their success, such as transportation or child care. Another important component is to provide a guaranteed schedule that offers required courses in a sequence to help ensure students can get the courses they need when they need them not only in sequence but also in a time that works for their busy life. Our research has found that students are more likely to be retained when they can get courses that fit into the times that they are most likely to be on campus. Often if more courses are available at times that fit into a student’s schedule, they are more likely to take more courses.


Among two-year entrants, students that enter college upon completion of high school (9 percent), attend full-time first semester (4.6 percent), and attend first summer semester (4.3 percent) are more likely to graduate with an associate’s degree or higher in five years than those who do not (reference groups). The effect is larger for those that enter a four-year institution first.

Insight 3: Reconsidering General Education Offerings Is Necessary 
Financial sustainability is not a new topic in higher education; however, research indicates that many institutions are facing greater enrollment and financial pressure during COVID. This, in turn, has placed a greater emphasis on the linkage between enrollment and financial health of institutions and systems. As promise programs continue to surface, how should institutions respond to free education?

Mohawk Valley Community College is a public two-year institution with an enrollment of approximately 4,000 students near Rome, New York. Like more than half of the two-year institutions, Mohawk Valley believed they would experience an enrollment decline of 11.75 percent, largely due to COVID-19. This perceived enrollment decline resulted in the institution looking at a projected budget cut of approximately 10 percent. To address these challenges, Mohawk Valley partnered with Ad Astra, to better align their course schedule, taking into account courses in general studies, that never previously had large enrollment challenges, but were now suffering due to a lack of first-year enrollment. As the figure below indicates, Mohawk Valley was able to gain greater insights into the cost of programs as well as the time to degree for students in real time. This was to ensure that students were able to get the courses they needed.

By better understanding the cost to deliver instruction as well as the number of students in each pathway in-real time, Mohawk Valley gained greater clarity around which sections to run and where to best prioritize faculty resources, without having to issue widespread faculty reductions. By addressing challenges of enrollment and financial health simultaneously, Mohawk Valley Community College is in a better position after COVID-19 began than prior to the pandemic.


Insight 4: Defining and Refining Pathways Is Crucial
When ambiguity in course sequence and offerings is present, students are left to guess the best path to completion. Defining and refining pathways are crucial steps to increasing completion. Many states have gone a step further and passed legislation around pathways in the form of transfer agreements.

Before Texas passed SB 25, Texas institutions worked to create the Texas Common Course Numbering System, which created a “uniform set of course designations to better understand course equivalency.”

Similar work is occurring in the Northeastern United States. The College Exchange is a partnership between Wells College, Cayuga Community College, and Ithaca College that allows for cross-registration agreements. In Connecticut, Goodwin University, the University of Bridgeport, and Paier College of Art are engaging in a similar model as they have created an education consortium that requires transfer pathway refinement.

Insight 5: Effectively Integrate Two-Year Pathways Into Four-Year Institutions Through Robust Transfer Agreements

As promise programs at two-year institutions prepare students to graduate or transfer to four-year institutions, these institutions must create a pathway gameplan to robustly accommodate courses taken elsewhere. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has prioritized transfer-student issues and aligning pathways on his list of areas to improve for the Biden Administration. Secretary Cardona has stated that during his time in Connecticut, he saw students struggling as many as four and five years out of high school because they weren’t easily able to transfer credits between community colleges and four-year institutions. In his remarks, Secretary Cardona emphasized that higher education must focus on removing ‘any obstacles and barriers’ to student success and noted that institutions should “improve transparency by making clear upfront what credits will be awarded and how they will be applied to a student’s degree pathway.”

In our work, we have partnered with hundreds of institutions through a solution known as Degree Velocity, which enables institutions to identify in real-time the pace students are on to graduate. As evidenced below, institutions not only understand the average pace to completion for a student, but they also have insights into whether or not the students are taking productive courses that count toward a current major. Such insights have been valuable for institutions to improve time to completion and can also provide valuable insights into what may be required if a student wishes to transfer to a four-year institution.


For four-year institutions, effectively accommodating transfer students and increasing course access will continue to aid enrollments. When students cannot get into the courses they need to graduate, there is an increased risk of stop outs. While this is applicable for all students, this is especially relevant when considering promise programs and the transfer students that leave these programs to continue at a four-year institution.

Insight 6: Consider Modalities When Exploring How Best To Support your Students

In addition to course access, modality also impacts student success and should be considered when thinking through promise programs. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, about 40 percent of first-time students start at a two-year institution. As promise programs continue to develop and flourish, this percentage will likely increase. This leaves four-year admissions officers to consider how they will support transfers, and two-year administrators to consider how they will increase persistence.

One way four-year institutions can provide greater access to students without expanding substantially more resources is to think more strategically about course modalities. Recent research found that 33 percent of post-secondary administrators indicate that they will continue to offer both remote and online course options even after their campuses have reopened and normal operations resumed.


As the figure above indicates, the majority of institutions of higher education remained online for the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters. As many more institutions begin to resume instruction primarily in-person or fully in-person, it is likely that students will still want to continue to take some courses online. Institutions that resume 100 percent instruction in-person may run the risk of further enrollment declines as students may not be able to attend at the given time, but they would attend an online asynchronous section or an online-only section. Being strategic about the course schedule moving forward calls for a blend of historical data with pathways, and data-informed estimates on what students will prefer as we begin to navigate the next normal.

A Summary of All Six Insights



About the Authors

John Barnshaw Headshot

John Barnshaw
Former VP, Research and Data Science
Ad Astra


John Barnshaw was the Vice President for Research and Data Science at Ad Astra, where he directed the Higher Education Scheduling Index, a benchmarking study for course scheduling efficiency and analytics, with more than 300 institutions participating. In his role as Vice President, he was responsible for creating research and statistical solutions that helped graduate more students faster while promoting, equity, align college-career pathways, and financial stability for institutions of higher education.

Prior to joining Ad Astra, John served as Director of Research and Public Policy at the American Association of University Professors, where he directed the Faculty Compensation Survey, the largest survey of faculty salary and benefits in higher education. Dr. Barnshaw also directed the National Study of Instructional Costs and Productivity (Delaware Cost Study), a longitudinal benchmarking that explores faculty teaching, separately budgeted research and public service expenditures at the discipline level for four-year institutions.

Barnshaw earned his degrees from the University of Delaware (Ph.D.) and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (MA, BA).

Tara Hansen 

Regional Vice President of Sales
Ad Astra

Tara serves as the Northeast executive sponsor and handles change management conversations as well as contractual needs. Through collaborative efforts, she helps increase Degree Velocity, retention, and completions with Ad Astra solutions. This work helps her and her clients make data-driven decisions.


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