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Fulfill the promise of higher education

The Drexel Promise will discount tuition by 50% for Pennsylvania and New Jersey Students who earned associate degrees from accredited community colleges. There are significant financial and academic benefits to completing a four-year education through these two kinds of institutions. This is a big step toward making college as “universal, free, and accessible as high school.” 

How can we influence federal and state financial aid policies to honor this promise in full for all students? We can start here:

  • Encourage the relationship between community colleges and universities and both state and federal support for partnerships. 
  • Lobby for changes in federal and state grant rules to allow community college students to bank grant funds for university tuition. 
  • Support College Promise programs that help students progress from community college to university graduation.


Need financial aid?

Here are some college funding resources

You can find the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and instructions on how to fill it out on the federal student aid website.

Philadelphia Education Fund offers resources and guidance to make college access more equitable. Visit their online portal Philly Goes 2 College, or contact PEF to see if any of their programs will help you and your family. You can also donate to support their work.

The College Promise is a national, non-partisan nonprofit ensuring that hard-working students have access to higher educational opportunities and support. See if any of their programs can help you or someone you know.

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The “Drexel Promise” Is Just The Start

A longtime college president applauds Drexel’s new tuition discount for community college transfers — and urges universities to do more to help underserved students attain their degrees

The “Drexel Promise” Is Just The Start

A longtime college president applauds Drexel’s new tuition discount for community college transfers — and urges universities to do more to help underserved students attain their degrees

As a longtime advocate for more vital connections between community colleges and universities, I was gratified to read the news last week about the Drexel Promise. Among expensive private universities, Drexel is showing leadership by offering a 50 percent renewable tuition discount for Pennsylvania and New Jersey students who hold associate degrees from accredited community colleges.

This decision, which goes into effect in fall 2023, addresses a number of national problems: the 25 percent decline in community college enrollment over the last five years; and the small percentage — 15 percent — who begin higher education at a community college with the intention of completing a bachelor’s degree, when they actually complete the degree. Drexel sets the example for other universities by respecting the education students attain at two-year institutions.

It’s also noteworthy that the 50 percent discount is in addition to state and financial aid available to students who fill out the FAFSA form.

The Drexel Promise establishes a number of important principles that other universities should emulate. Most important is the value Drexel places on the associate degree. Many universities, if they are interested in enrolling community students at all, do their best to encourage transfer as soon as possible. By doing so, they ignore the financial and academic benefits of a coherent community college program.

According to Evelyn Thimba, Drexel’s senior vice president for enrollment management, “It certainly is a financial commitment, but it is also a commitment to offer holistic academic and personal support to ensure retention and persistence through graduation.”

It would be even better if Drexel required students to attend the community college full-time. Contrary to conventional wisdom, full-time community college enrollment can cost less overall by concentrating expenses in a two-year period and making the student eligible for more generous financial aid. Full-time does not mean not having a job. Students can still supplement income by working on or off campus. Full-time study — and this is the chief benefit — leads to better connected intellectual experiences.

Once the Drexel Promise student transfers to the university, full-time enrollment and maintaining a 2.0 GPA are required, encouraging student commitment and curricular coherence.

Drexel recognizes that transfer students need advising and onboarding services equivalent to those available to first-year students. At many universities, transfer students, whether from community colleges or other four-year institutions, are left to their own devices. At Drexel, special support services continue until Promise students graduate.

According to Evelyn Thimba, Drexel’s senior vice president for enrollment management, “It certainly is a financial commitment, but it is also a commitment to offer holistic academic and personal support to ensure retention and persistence through graduation.”

More is needed to fulfill the promise

Drexel Promise students can earn approximately $19,000 through the university’s co-op program. Besides the financial benefit, this practical experience is important in students’ learning and in building social capital.

But Drexel’s price tag is still challenging. Drexel’s tuition for 2022-23 is $56,595, plus an estimated $2,405 in fees. Commuter students would not be responsible for $16,980 in room and board, although they would still have to find housing and incur costs for food, as well as for books. The Drexel Promise combined with federal and state aid, work-study, and co-op opportunities would reduce students’ price tag substantially, but probably not enough to avoid incurring some debt.

Transfer is not a simple process for students, who are easily overwhelmed by required paperwork. Often first-generation students are asked — on their own — to navigate not one but two bureaucracies that don’t talk with each other or even like each other.

Public and private universities should respect local community colleges and work on full partnerships. That means administrators and faculty members from two-year and four-year institutions meeting to cooperate on developing seamless pathways, cross-institutional professional and peer advising, and financial incentives for students who enroll full-time for the first two years at a community college with the intention, after the completion of the associate degree, of transferring for full-time enrollment in a partner university.

This four-year vision across two institutions has important financial and academic benefits. Students are encouraged to pursue a coherent program at both the community college and the university. Governors State University, where I was president for 13 years, sustains the DDP, Dual Degree Program (two degrees, associate and bachelor’s). It’s a national model. (Please consult this how-to guidebook, supported by a grant from the Kresge Foundation.)

With this level of community college-university cooperation, it should be possible to influence federal and state financial aid policies. Community college costs are substantially less than university tuition. We should lobby for students’ ability to bank Pell and state scholarships in the first two less expensive years and apply the additional funds to upper-division levels of study. In addition, foundations and private donors can be approached to contribute funds to provide scholarships specifically designated for community college/university transfer students. At Governors State, we established a one-million-dollar endowment to support such scholarships.

“The Psychological Power of the Word Free”

The College Promise, led by former Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter, is a national organization committed to making college as “universal, free, and accessible as high school.” Besides the obvious — allowing people to graduate without a mountain of debt — the idea of affordability is often enough to encourage would-be students to matriculate. As Janet M. Sortor, vice president and chief academic officer at the Maine Community College System, said: “The psychological power of the word ‘free’ cannot be underestimated.”

Across the nation, many states have worked toward free post-secondary education. The most notable example is New Mexico. A new state law, passed with bipartisan support, according to The New York Times, “allocates 1 percent of the state’s budget toward covering tuition and fees at public colleges and universities, community colleges and tribal colleges. All state residents from new high school graduates to adults enrolling part-time will be eligible regardless of family income.”

Equity and opportunity depend on support for community college/university pathways. Drexel has done something good. Now let’s all do more.

Things we can do

  • Encourage community colleges and universities to build relationships across institutional barriers.
  • Encourage state and federal support of community college/university partnerships.
  • Lobby for community college students’ ability to bank funds from federal and state grants to apply to university tuition.
  • Contribute to College Promise programs, especially those that offer seamless pathways from community college to university graduation.

Elaine Maimon, Ph.D., is the author of Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation. Her co-authored book, Writing In The Arts and Sciences, has been designated as a landmark text. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. Follow @epmaimon on Twitter.



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