Daniel Collier, PhD
Jul 25 · 5 min read

#TuitionFree college continues to gain steam, and as we progress towards the 2020 election, the spotlight on tuition-free plans will grow brighter. Recently, Dan Collier wrote about research findings related to the Kalamazoo Promise (KPromise). Specifically, Dan and associates’ research focused on the students’ experiences with food security, their motivations and how they felt about KPromise, and how they performed at Western Michigan University in comparison to other public school graduates. Many of these findings are summarized in this blog.

We steadfastly believe that cemented tuition-free programs like KPromise and Tennessee Promise can help us understand how a federal tuition-free policy may help students, what challenges would remain, and what the differences in experiences and outcomes may be. Today, we expand a bit on the post-college experiences and situations of KPromise students. To be clear, this is highly unique data, as most research on tuition-free programs generally use program-level data and do not yet focus on the student experience — let alone post-college outcomes.

Framing This Research

During the past few months, we have collected data on KPromise and statistically-similar counterparts from the Fall cohorts of 2009–12 at Western Michigan University (1). The data centers on student loan debt, earnings, savings, and health and life satisfaction. Thanks to a generous research grant from the Department of Educational Leadership, Research and Technology at Western Michigan University, we were able to incentivize these students to participate in our survey — which unfortunately still resulted in a small sample size(2). This data is imperfect and not as strong as we would prefer — please take the findings associated with this blog with caution and understanding that these trends are not cemented (see footnotes). This is just the start of the conversation about the potential wider effects of tuition-free policy.

Student Loan Debt, Earnings, and Savings

On average, KPromise participants reported possessing $18,000 less in loan debt ($22,000 v. $40,000, p=.040). This data shores up our prior findings that many tuition-free students do not walk away from college “debt-free.” For those worried about these students still having “skin in the game,” or variants of this narrative, we continue to present evidence that these students have such and assumptions believing the opposite is simply incorrect.

Furthermore, only 40% of KPromise participants reported being enrolled in an Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) plan as opposed to 73% of the matched sample (p=.023). Debate surrounding IDR has ramped up as governmental entities like the GAO have released reports describing that, in total, IDR policies will cost the government considerably more than expected. When considering the total costs of a tuition-free policy, we have initial evidence that tuition-free policy could help the federal government reduce enrollment in and costs associated with IDR repayment. The chart below illustrates further differences in loan debt. Note KPromise participants’ federal monthly repayments are higher as are the monthly amount going towards loan principle.

*Denotes Significance at .05 or less

Beyond loan debt, KPromise participants also reported higher take-home pay as compared to the matched sample — $2,963 v. $1,897 (p=.103). The combination of higher earnings and lower loan debt probably correlate to a lower percentage of KPromise students being enrolled in IDR and to reporting placing higher amounts into monthly personal savings, retirement, and long-term investments (e.g., stocks not associated with retirement). Overall, the KPromise students signal a possible higher capacity to save and build wealth than their matched counterparts. To be noted, none of these findings indicate statistical significance.

Health and Life Satisfaction

The data illustrate two significant differences between KPromise and the matched sample. First, a lower percentage of KPromise students (4% vs. 50%, p=<.001) reported that they ignored pressing health concerns due to their debt. Second, compared to the matched sample (42%), a significantly lower percentage of KPromise students (16%) reported having suicidal thoughts (p=.040). While the focus of this blog post is on KPromise students, the findings for the matched sample highlight a profound level of distress that suggest a need for intervention. Below are additional health and stress-related measurements — in which KPromise participants exhibit “better” but not significantly different scores across each.

*Denotes Significance at .05 or Less

Self-Reported Weekly Behavior

The final set of questions we asked were focused on how many times per week participants engaged in selected behaviors that prior studies suggest could indicate physical and social health. As illustrated, KPromise participants reported fewer weekly instances of engaging in drinking and drinking alone. Long known are correlations between drinking with increased debt and stress — and considering that the matched sample reported higher levels in both, these findings should be unsurprising. Overall, we find that KPromise participants generally reported living healthier lifestyles.

KPromise participants also reported visiting family more — but this finding could result from our finding that 90% of KPromise students remain in Kalamazoo post-college.

* Denotes Significance at .05 or Less

So What?

Overall, we have initial evidence that #Tuitionfree policies may be extraordinarily helpful to students post-college. Our sample sizes are small and findings are limited — but so is the general understanding of what life is like for tuition-free students after college. In summary, KPromise participants reported:

  1. considerably less student loan debt
  2. higher wages (but not significantly different at .05)
  3. lower rates of enrollment in Income-Driven Repayment plans
  4. building greater amounts of savings and wealth (but not significantly different at .05)
  5. ignoring pressing health concerns and having suicidal thoughts to a lesser degree
  6. less weekly engagement in drinking and drinking alone.

Each of these factors has a foundation in research that suggests tuition-free policies may be highly beneficial — both financially and socially — to the federal government, communities, and individuals. As more research like this emerges, these findings and connected trends should be included in any return on investment calculation of Promises (nationally, state, or locally-based).


  1. Daniel A. Collier, Ph.D. — Western Michigan University — Dcollier74 (Twitter)
  2. Eric Archer, Ph.D. — Western Michigan University — drarcherwmu (Twitter)
  3. Daniel Fitzpatrick, Ph.D. — Western Michigan University — FitzEdPolicy (Twitter)

#TuitionFree #KalamazooPromise #WesternMichiganUniversity #StudentLoanDebt #HigherEduction #Policy #Drinking #Stress #Savings #Earnings


1. We identified statistically similar students using a Caliper Propensity Score Matching technique set at .20. Overall, we reached out to 598 students, 299 KPromise and 299 graduates from public schools who enrolled at Western Michigan University. See the PSM methodology here.

2. Unfortunately, even with a guaranteed incentive ($10) and a lottery-style drawing with a chance to win between $25–250 we did not find much success in developing a strong sample-size as only n=25 KPromise students responded and n=26 non-Promise. Surely, previous studies have been published with N=50 before but the data from these types of studies should be taken with the utmost caution. Although small, the demographic factors of the samples match the population of those invited to engage with the survey.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

Daniel Collier, PhD

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Post-Doctoral Researcher at Western Michigan University, eyeing the next step.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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