Detroit Promise Path


College Promise is the latest college-access movement in the United States. With more than 300 programs across the nation, College Promise is pushing forward national conversations about college access and affordability. College Promise programs typically cover college tuition and fees for students in a particular geographic area. Some programs help students from a single high school, while others are broader, serving all students in a city or state. Many of these programs reach out to families well before students have graduated from high school to show them that college is a viable option for everyone.

The Detroit Promise, administered by the Detroit Regional Chamber, has operated since 2013. It offers Detroit’s recent high school graduates a last-dollar scholarship – meaning all tuition and fees are covered after financial aid is applied – to any of five area community colleges. (Recently, several four-year colleges were added to the Detroit Promise for eligible students.) The scholarship covers three years of tuition.

While Detroit Promise staff have observed that the program reduces financial barriers that can keep the city’s high school graduates from attending community college, Detroit Promise students’ persistence rates once they arrive in community college have remained distressingly low. To improve students’ college experience and help more of them persist and graduate, the Chamber partnered with MDRC to create the Detroit Promise Path, which adds proven student support services to the existing scholarship. The services include a comprehensive coaching component with a dedicated campus coach and monthly financial incentives to offset other costs of attendance (for example, transportation costs). The program, operated centrally by the Chamber, relies on data tracking through a management information system to ensure it is operating effectively, to monitor students’ progress, and to communicate with students.

MDRC is evaluating the Detroit Promise Path using a randomized controlled trial design. Two cohorts of students participated in the study: those students entering community college in fall 2016 and fall 2017. Early findings from the evaluation show that the program is helping these students stay enrolled in school, with particularly large, positive effects on the percentage of students who enroll full time and who enroll in the summer. The evaluation has also found positive effects on students’ credit accumulation. MDRC’s final report in 2021 will analyze the program’s effect on graduation rates.

Because of the encouraging early findings, the Chamber has begun offering the program to all incoming Detroit Promise students at four of the five community colleges in the study, with a goal of expanding the program even further in the future.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

Detroit Promise provides last-dollar scholarships to Detroit high school students who enroll full time in Detroit-area community colleges. Like other promise scholarships, Detroit Promise covers students’ remaining tuition and fees after federal financial aid is applied. In the new program, Detroit Promise Path, all students continue to receive scholarships for the full three-year period. However, they are also eligible to receive new services and benefits to address other barriers to college success.

  • Required coaching. A Detroit Promise Path campus coach assists a small caseload of students with academic and personal support topics and undertakes an intrusive advising model, in which each coach actively reaches out to students through multiple modes of contact. The coaches use a management information system to collect data about students’ participation and monitor students’ academic progress.

  • Monthly incentives. Enrolled students who meet the program requirements receive a monthly financial incentive of $50 to offset expenses, such as bus passes and food, not covered by financial aid.

  • Data tracking and program management. The program is managed by the Detroit Promise Coordinator, who oversees the coaches and monitors students’ participation and outcomes through regular data reports from the management information system. These data reports provide a mechanism for continual program improvement through central oversight.

  • Summer engagement. The program encourages students to participate in productive summer activities, including enrolling in summer courses or pursuing summer employment through a local jobs program.

This program builds on research evidence of “what works” for low-income community college students from numerous studies conducted by MDRC, including an evaluation of the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, the Performance-Based Scholarship Demonstration, and the Opening Doors Demonstration. The goal is to use research evidence to enhance Detroit Promise and help some of our nation’s most underserved students. The findings from MDRC’s evaluation will also be useful for promise programs across the country as they seek to serve students more effectively.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

Study enrollment took place for Detroit Promise students entering any of these community colleges:

  • Henry Ford College

  • Macomb Community College

  • Oakland Community College

  • Schoolcraft College

  • Wayne County Community College

To be eligible for Detroit Promise, a student must have graduated from a Detroit high school and must have attended a Detroit school for at least two years. All 2016 and 2017 Detroit Promise community college students who were new to college were eligible for the Detroit Promise Path program and study. The study’s total sample size is 1,268 students. (Note that this number includes all students who indicated they planned to attend community college and completed the Detroit Promise application form. Not all students enrolled in school.)

The study uses a random assignment design to estimate the effects caused by the Detroit Promise Path. Eligible students are randomly assigned either to a program group, which receives the scholarship plus the Detroit Promise Path services, or to a control group, which receives the scholarship and the schools’ usual services. All students in both groups continue to receive scholarship funds. Data sources include transcripts and administrative records, the National Student Clearinghouse, and interviews with program staff members and students.