Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants


The Evolution of the Promise Scholarship Movement: Policy Diffusion, Reinvention, and Critical Design Issues


Political Science Department


College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Date Range



Social and Behavioral Sciences


Since the announcement of the Kalamazoo Promise in 2005, place-based scholarship programs have emerged in communities of all types and sizes, with more than 35 created over an eight-year span, from 2006 to 2014. Unlike traditional approaches to student financial aid, Promise programs award scholarships based on continuous attendance and residency within a given school district. These programs share the goals of expanding access to higher education, deepening the college-going culture in K-12 school districts, and stimulating economic development; however, they differ in important ways. Approximately half the programs have adopted the universal eligibility criteria of the Kalamazoo Promise, while the other half target their benefits on the basis of academic merit and sometimes financial need. Another critical difference is where students are allowed to use their scholarships; some programs limit use to local institutions while others allow students to access a broad range of post-secondary institutions. The purpose of this paper is to trace the evolution of the Promise movement over the past decade, explain how these competing models emerged, summarize the impact of several established programs that illustrate these key programmatic differences, and propose a framework for comparing Promise scholarship programs along the dimensions of student eligibility and post-secondary options. The mode of inquiry is qualitative and historical. Evidence is based on the authors ongoing study of the Promise movement, insights from academic research and program evaluations of existing Promise programs, interviews with Promise stakeholders in multiple communities, and social science literature covering policy diffusion and innovation, universal versus targeted social programs, and collective impact. Preliminary findings suggest that the impact of Promise scholarship programs will vary depending on how they are structured, with universal programs better suited to the goals of transforming K-12 districts college-going culture and stimulating economic development, and merit-based programs more efficient in targeting those students who will be successful in a post-secondary setting. The Promise model has been replicated widely (and continues to be explored in many communities) as a strategy for broadening access to higher education and revitalizing communities; however, replication has taken place without a solid empirical foundation about the results of Promise programs to date or a clear understanding of how choices made by stakeholders about critical design features will shape program outcomes. This paper, and this panel as a whole, will contribute to collective knowledge about the impact of Promise programs and ensure that its use as a strategy for broadening access to higher education is based on a realistic appraisal of potential outcomes.

Conference Name

2015 AERA Annual Meeting

Conference Location

Chicago, IL

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