As Some Programs Stumble, Others Question Future of Free College

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

While federal efforts have fizzled, the “free college” drumbeat has continued on a smaller scale, as states, local communities, and individual institutions continue to propose ways to make college tuition-free or debt-free for students. But as this endeavor continues, some are calling into question whether existing programs have been implemented correctly, and if there might be better ways to lower the cost of college for low-income students.

In recent weeks, several reports—including those from The Education Trust, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), and the Brookings Institution—have examined the effectiveness of several “free college” programs, such as the Tennessee Promise, New York’s Excelsior Scholarship program, and The Degree Project in Milwaukee, generally finding that many programs intended to boost college enrollment among low-income students and lower the financial burden have in some way or another fallen short.

At a time when some lawmakers and thought leaders are questioning whether free college should exist at all—particularly at the federal level—and for whom it should be made available, the recent reports highlight best practices in implementing certain programs, and shine a light on areas for improvement should the movement continue to expand at the local and state levels.

That’s not to say that the programs have failed. Douglas Harris, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the study on The Degree Project, said during an event last week that now is the time to have a discussion about the details and how to move forward.

“In my mind this is one of the most potentially impactful policy changes, if this keeps going, that we’ve seen in several decades in terms of social and economic policy, generally,” he said.

The Education Trust noted in its report that while free college proposals could “significantly cut college costs for future generations,” failing to learn from past mistakes could lead the policies to “perpetuate, rather than disrupt, systems that favor some and disempower others.”

One pitfall that emerged in several of the papers is the use of eligibility and performance requirements that limit the programs to students who meet certain GPA, residency, attendance, or other thresholds. Harris and his co-authors found in their research, for example, that the program itself had no impact on whether Milwaukee high school students went directly to college, in part due to the fact that the performance requirements reduced the number of eligible students out of the gate.

The Education Trust and IHEP reports also highlighted the negative impact “last dollar” programs that only award funds after all other aid is distributed can have on low-income students. In those situations, wealthier students may actually benefit more from a tuition-free college policy, while low-income students would not receive additional aid to put toward living expenses that oftentimes are a more likely reason they struggle financially while in school.

Beth Akers, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said during the Brookings event last week that “there are barriers to enrollment beyond tuition,” such as transportation costs, food, and rent, suggesting “maybe that's a better place to spend some of these resources than supporting tuition expenditures for families with students who would have gone to college anyway.”

But in an opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, and Michelle Miller-Adams, a professor of political science at Grand Valley State University, wrote that the reports “focus too narrowly” on the issue of “last dollar” programs, while overlooking “the many other ways that free-college programs benefit low-income students,” as well as their role in the broader goal of making college more affordable.

“Both reports employ a narrow definition of equity, reflecting a traditional approach to assessing the impact of financial aid and a belief that money is well spent only if it goes solely to the lowest-income people,” they wrote. “We share the commitment to ensuring that low-income students are supported but argue that this approach misses ways in which free college supports students far better than typical need-based aid does.”

They went on to say that these programs, even if they don’t provide additional aid to low-income students, help push them toward attending college at all and to receiving “financial aid they would have missed out on by not enrolling.” Further, they said, free college programs could change the messaging about the importance of college in primary and secondary school, so that students recognize not just the value of college, but also the possibility of attending.

Moving forward, Akers said she’s excited that free college programs are progressing in states, as it gives an opportunity for policymakers to look at the outcomes from different types of designs.

“If it were ever the case where we did wish to, or have the political desire to implement a federal program, we’d have a lot of evidence about how to do that effectively,” she said.


Publication Date: 9/24/2018

James C | 9/24/2018 1:26:58 PM

There has to be a happy medium between the excessively debt laden college experience we have today vs free college. Double the amount of Pell grants and increase subsidized loan amounts and we will be partly there towards that happy medium. It can be paid for in large part by eliminating the tuition tax credits.

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