Do “Early Commitment’ Programs Make a Difference?


Among the many strategies being employed to get more students from poor families enrolled in college, count the "early commitment" programs as one of the more encouraging.

That's the conclusion of Thomas L. Harnish, research associate at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C., and author of a new policy brief titled "State Early Commitment Programs: A Contract for College Success?"

"Early commitment" programs are those in which students make commitments in middle school or their freshman year in high school to do certain things to get into college.

For instance, they make a pledge to get good grades, take hard courses and stay out of trouble (major trouble, anyway) during their high school years. In return, if the students hold up their end of the deal, the students get a generous amount of financial aid.

The policy brief examines early commitment programs in the states of Indiana, Oklahoma, Washington and Wisconsin.

"Research on community and state early-commitment programs has demonstrated encouraging results," the brief states. However, it warns that "key concerns" remain about states' ability to keep up their end of the bargain, particularly in a time of budget shortfalls and declining revenue.

The brief also stresses the need to track "early commitment" program participants better in order to establish the costs and benefits of continuing the programs.

So far, the programs have been implemented in various ways and differ in some of the criteria, such as grade point averages and family income requirements. Similarly, the results of early commitment programs have been mixed.

In Indiana, for example, the state's Twenty-first Century Scholars program, which gives students four years of free tuition at any public college or the equivalent for private school, participants were 37 percent more likely to achieve Honors or similarly advanced classes; 50 percent more likely to be enrolled in college four years after ninth-grade and more likely to take the SAT than non-participants. However, some researchers argued that once in college, participants were still less likely to earn a degree than other students and that their SAT scores were mediocre. One report found that the 1999 group of Twenty-First Century Scholars showed "no evidence" that being in the program improved their chances of finishing college.

Contrarily, in Oklahoma, students who participated in the Oklahoma's Promise program, which began in 1996, had higher GPA and ACT score than their peers, went to college at rates higher than the statewide average and, perhaps most importantly, graduated from college at higher rates than other students.

The policy brief describes certain key elements of early commitment programs. They include:

--A clear contract that demystifies the cost and process of getting into college.

--A minimum academic achievement threshold that plays a critical role in determining the number of qualified applicants as well as the cost of the program.

--Core coursework requirements that put students in classes that better prepare them for college, such as advanced math and foreign language studies.

--Good behavior. All of the programs call for students basically to stay out of trouble. The Wisconsin Covenant, for instance, states than participants must not be convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor and cannot be expelled from school.

--Application to college. By requiring students to apply for college, it serves as a "motivating factor" to finish all the paperwork associated with getting into college.