Announcement of Ph.D. in Higher Education Dissertation Proposal Defense Thomas Zimmerman: “To Whom are We Keeping Our Promises?: A Mixed-Methods Analysis of the Impact of First- and Last-Dollar Promise Programs on Racially and Ethnically Marginalized Students in California and New Jersey”
Over the past fifteen years, increased attention has been paid by the public and policymakers alike to the relentless speed with which higher education costs have risen and the substantial debts students and families incur in pursuit of a college credential (Hess, 2021; Shell, 2018). Even more troubling given well-document racial and ethnic equity gaps in postsecondary education attainment are findings that students who hold racially and ethnically marginalized identities are especially price-sensitive in terms of deciding if and when to attend an institution of higher education (Baker et al., 2017; Chen & DesJardins, 2010). One affordability intervention that has gained traction are promise programs—place-based financial aid programs (Ruiz et al., 2020. p. 242) that offer tuition-free college for a set period of time, and can either be applied before (on a first-dollar basis) or after (on a last-dollar basis) federal grant aid. At the federal level, promise programs for up to two years of community college become a popular topic of debate in presidential elections. To ensure that a federal promise program is successful in providing access to college, particularly among racially and ethnically marginalized communities, the proposed dissertation will use a mixed-methods approach to determine the success of first-dollar and last-dollar promise programs in California and New Jersey, respectively, in providing increased access to and attainment of a postsecondary education. The analyses will focus on outcomes for low-income racially and ethnically marginalized populations to understand the student perspective and experience of college costs in these different types of programs. The research questions to be addressed are: 1) What is the relationship between the funding structure of promise programs and access to and attainment of a postsecondary education among students who hold racially and ethnically marginalized identities?; 2) How do students interpret the eligibility requirements of and received benefits from firstdollar versus last-dollar promise programs?; and 3) How might students’ perceptions of and experiences in first-dollar and last-dollar promise programs explain differences in persistence and/or completion outcomes at the institutions studied? These questions are designed to provide insights into how evidenced-based policy can increase equity in postsecondary education.
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