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Imagine being able to tell a student whose family can’t afford college that there is an opportunity for her to go — guaranteed.

It’s a promise given to thousands of students by states and communities across the nation, thanks to programs like Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars and The Kalamazoo Promise in Kalamazoo, Mich. These programs differ in many ways, but they have one key feature: an early guarantee of college affordability. Evidence suggests that this early guarantee of free college tuition not only motivates students to keep up academically throughout high school, but also encourages them to attend four-year universities.

Despite the powerful impact of promise programs, many are under financial strain. Several have had to scale back or change eligibility requirements in recent years because of funding issues.

But there’s a solution — one that would provide funding for current programs like these and make room for more around the country. Ed Trust has proposed a budget-neutral way for the federal government to provide major funding to states to offer guarantees just like these. By consolidating a variety of existing federal higher education programs, the federal government could provide sufficient funding for states to guarantee low and middle-income students a college education either debt-free or with interest-free loans — again at no new taxpayer cost. (For more details on this proposal, see Doing Away With Debt.)

For students in families with incomes in the bottom 40 percent, “attending the college that’s best for them or attending college at all too often seems out of reach,” Michael Dannenberg, Ed Trust’s director of higher ed, testified in front of a Congressional committee earlier this month. Sustaining and growing promise programs is essential for heightening student expectations and opportunity on a broad scale.

In Indiana, participants in the 21st Century Scholars Program are more likely than non-participants to have aspirations for a four-year degree. Evidence also suggests that the program has played “an important equalizing role” in getting low-income students actually to enroll in four-year colleges. In Michigan, researchers have found that the Kalamazoo Promise Program increased the likelihood that low-income students submitted test scores to the two most selective public institutions in the state and decreased the likelihood of sending scores to community college by 10.3 percentage points, a 49 percent decline — further suggesting that the promise allowed low-income students to consider higher priced and more selective institutions. In other words, they’re more likely to “match” to colleges that are best for them.

Yes, lack of information is a barrier to higher education, especially for low-income and minority students. College promise programs eliminate that barrier and empower students. As Congress considers everything from tax reform to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the theme of an early, guaranteed college opportunity promise is something they should keep in mind.

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