Promoting equality in college enrollment and completion must start early in students’ college-going journeys, including with their expectations to first earn a college degree. With a nationally representative sample of high school students, I evaluate the ability of a recent collection of college access policies (place-based “promise” scholarships or “free” college programs) to increase students’ college expectations and test the heterogeneity of these impacts across students’ race and family income. Evidence from a difference-in-differences design and lagged-dependent-variable regressions suggest the introduction of promise programs increased the likelihood a student expected to attain an associate degree or higher by 8.5 to 15.0 percentage points by the end of high school, with larger effects for low-income and racially minoritized students. This study is the first to test the power of “free” college in shaping pre-college students’ educational plans, and, in doing so, not only addresses an existing gap in the literature but also identifies a key mechanism through which many of the positive college-going impacts observed across promise programs in the current literature may in fact originate. Given the rapid proliferation of promise programs across the nation, this study provides policymakers with a fuller view of the potential impacts of these programs, particularly concerning how they influence students’ outcomes along dimensions of race and income.
College access; difference-in-differences; educational expectations; free college; High School Longitudinal Study of 2009; lagged dependent variables; promise programs
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