College Promise Success Initiative


MDRC’s College Promise Success Initiative provided technical assistance to College Promise and Free College programs interested in promoting success in college by implementing evidence-based student support practices. Through this initiative, MDRC disseminated best practices and tools to the 300-plus College Promise and Free College programs that exist across the country. MDRC also provided in-depth, individualized technical assistance to a number of programs through early 2019. MDRC partnered with the College Promise Campaign and the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) Association for this initiative.

This work began with the Detroit Promise Path evaluation in 2016 and expanded to include several more programs in 2017 and 2018.

Interested College Promise and Free College programs can access the open-source tools and can view MDRC’s series of free Promise webinars.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

Though there have been great strides in increasing access to higher education — and though the United States has a growing need for a skilled workforce — graduation rates remain low. At community colleges, only one-fifth of students graduate within three years. MDRC believes it is critical for interventions to address both access to college and success once students enroll. College Promise and Free College programs are in a unique position to do so. These programs are already confronting the issue of financial barriers to college. Yet tuition is just one piece of the puzzle. Most low-income students face multiple barriers to success once they enroll in postsecondary education, and as a result many of them cannot take full advantage of the financial support available. MDRC’s portfolio of research evidence on “what works” for postsecondary success has presented strategies to address these barriers. Building such strategies into existing Promise and Free College programs could be an efficient and easily expandable way to maximize access and substantially increase graduation rates, while at the same time improving the impact of existing investments.

The Promise Success Initiative provided College Promise and Free College programs across the country with technical assistance to strengthen their models and support students more comprehensively than they can with scholarships alone. Its goal was to strengthen existing Promise programs to give students the tools to be academically successful and reach graduation. Since 2016, MDRC has been working with the Detroit Regional Chamber to create Detroit Promise Path, which added evidence-based college success components to its existing scholarship program. Early findings from a randomized controlled trial conducted by MDRC show that the additional components led to significant differences in student success: compared with the scholarship alone, the new program had a sizable impact on enrollment in the second semester and on full-time enrollment in the first and second semesters.

In 2017, MDRC partnered with five additional Promise programs (Los Angeles Promise, Rhode Island Promise, Flint Promise, Richmond Promise, and Oregon Promise at Portland Community College) to provide technical assistance to bolster each program’s student support services in an efficient and scalable way. MDRC also created a suite of publicly accessible open source tools that Promise programs can use to start and improve their own programs. In addition, MDRC issued publications on the lessons learned from working with these programs and conducted a series of free webinars.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

MDRC partnered with the College Promise Campaign and the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) Association for this initiative. The programs that participated in in-depth technical assistance are:

  • The Detroit Promise (Detroit, Michigan)
  • The Los Angeles Promise (Los Angeles, California)
  • The Rhode Island Promise at the Community College of Rhode Island (statewide, Rhode Island)
  • The Flint Promise (Flint, Michigan)
  • The Richmond Promise (Richmond, California)
  • Oregon Promise at Portland Community College (Portland, Oregon)