Part 1: Confused About What Free College Entails? So Is Everyone Else

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of three articles examining the free college movement and how it could impact the nation's higher education system. This article focuses on the background of the free college idea, how different proposals are structured, and what concerns have surfaced over the last several years as more programs emerge. Subsequent articles will delve into how free college programs are funded, and how they affect financial aid offices.

For months, the debate over the merits and drawbacks of "free college" has saturated the news cycle, 2020 presidential campaign trail, think tank discussions, and college campuses. However, as the world’s focus shifted to the spread of the novel coronavirus and its devastating effects on society — including finding ways to mitigate its disruption of higher education for students — those conversations have taken a backseat as states wrestle with a new reality of economic uncertainty.

Virginia and Michigan, for example, had finalized details for their free college plans and allocated the funds to start their programs mere weeks before schools and businesses in the United States began closing due to the pandemic. However, those plans came to a halt as governors from both states rescinded their commitments to uptaking new education initiatives for the foreseeable future, according to Morely Winograd, president of the Campaign for Free College Tuition (CFCT).

"On the one hand, the need for free college as a strategy that states can pursue to make college more affordable for their residents ... has never been more needed," Winograd said. "The demand was there, then it stopped, just like everything else."

At the same time, there are some free college plans that continue to move forward — such as at the University of Nebraska, which announced on April 14 that beginning in the fall, it would be waiving the tuition for both online and in-person students from families making $60,000 or less. And Michigan — though Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed funding for a broader free college program — just announced plans for a new tuition-free program to offer essential workers during the COVID-19 crisis the opportunity to earn a college degree.

Winograd said while he believes the coronavirus does not spell the end for free college, it will mean reevaluating the way programs are currently managed. While CFCT has historically focused on supporting states in their efforts to create free college programs, the group is currently working with members of Congress to petition for some sort of federal-state partnership — namely by allocating money to governors who express plans to create programs targeted toward adults. With such a narrow focus to start, Winograd said he is confident Congress can afford to press forward on the initiative and keep the momentum going on the free college movement.

"The future now is to return our attention to this issue in the context of an economic recovery from the coronavirus," Winograd said.

With No Single Definition, Outlook on Free College Is Murky

As it appears that free college — despite a hiatus in many states — is here to stay, the future of what that might look like as a whole for higher education remains murky. That's because as the idea continued to gain momentum, one thing became clear: there is no single definition of free college. It’s therefore hard to imagine what the future holds for higher education and the way students and families might pay — or not pay — for college.

However, common themes have emerged in the details of free college programs, such as what sector they target and when aid is disbursed to students — both of which have been the target of criticism and concern among higher education stakeholders and financial aid professionals.

Plus, proposals for a national free college system offered by former and current presidential hopefuls have added a new dimension to the conversation, and have led higher education stakeholders to question whether candidates are perpetuating the issues coming to light with current free college programs, or are paving the way for a better future for college affordability and access.

"There is no common definition of 'free college' at this point, which makes it difficult to standardize these sorts of efforts at the local, state, and federal levels," said NASFAA President Justin Draeger. "Besides questions of first-dollar or last-dollar, there is wide variation in which students and which types of schools and programs qualify for 'free college,' and how much free college pays for tuition and fees, or total cost of attendance."

As policymakers work toward nailing down what a country would look like under a federal free college system after the coronavirus outbreak subsides, it's helpful to take a step back and examine the current landscape of free college, what the potential of some proposals is, and what implications they do and would have for federal financial aid.

How We Got Here: The Government's Role in Student Financial Aid

While the idea of free college may sound revolutionary, it's not as drastic as some might think.

In fact, the idea was first proposed in 1947 by a group of higher education experts formed by then-President Harry Truman, known as the Truman Commission. In its report, the commission proposed a series of policies that would invite the federal government even further into higher education, including offering free schooling "through the fourteenth grade." While many of the ideas included in the commission's report were realized over time, free college was not one of them.

Nearly 20 years later, in 1965, Congress created Title IV programs through the Higher Education Act (HEA) — which is currently and slowly in the process of being reauthorized for the ninth time — in response to a message from then-President Lyndon B. Johnson about the need to expand access to higher education to more students from low- and middle-income families.

Fast forward half a century to 2015, and then-President Barack Obama seems to have picked up from where Truman left off — proposing that the federal government shoulder the cost of two years of community college for qualifying students through a partnership with the states. While "America's College Promise"was an unpopular proposal with Congress at the time, most likely due to its high price tag, it marked another important moment in higher education; while certain states and communities had been offering tuition-free programs for some time — Indiana has been doing so since the 1990s — the debate around federal free college began to gather steam again.

Today, the race for the 2020 presidential election — with proposals to tackle rising student debt and climbing tuition costs — has reopened the conversation around free college policies, and policymakers are again being forced to consider what role the federal government, states, and students and families should play in funding postsecondary education.

Where We Are Now: The Current Landscape of Free College

Before delving into what the current state of free college looks like and how state efforts differ, it's important to note that there are commonalities among free college programs: the vast majority offer students two years of community college tuition-free, and most use a "last-dollar" funding model, which means they cover costs after other financial aid is applied.

In lieu of a federal, nationwide program that former presidents touted, years of successful local programs offering free tuition have inspired a growing number of states to cover the tuition of students within their borders. As College Promise Campaign (CPC) President Martha Kanter details in a blog post for the American Association of Community Colleges, the Knoxville Promise — which first began in 2008 when former Gov. Bill Haslam was mayor of the city —laid the groundwork to expand to the statewide Tennessee Promise program, and the Long Beach College Promise led to the California College Promise Grant, and so on.

However, due to varying program structures, the reported number of free college programs functioning today varies depending on who you speak with. For example, the CPC's latest count is 320 local promise programs across 47 states, with 27 state-wide programs, while CFCT reported that, as of April 2020, just 24 states have established free college programs. Fellows at The Century Foundation (TCF) would tell you that as of June 2019 — the group’s most recent count — there are programs in 19 states.

Some of those state and local programs have been dubbed "college promise" programs, while others have been advertised as generous scholarships or grants, such as Kentucky's "Work Ready Scholarship" program and Arkansas' "ArFuture."

In addition to carrying different names, programs are unique in their eligibility criteria.

For example, the state programs in West Virginia and Indiana are limited to students pursuing degrees in high-demand fields. Plus, a handful of states impose even stricter requirements for their programs, offering free tuition only to students from families with incomes of $50,000 or less, and to those who earned above a certain ACT score and/or a certain high school GPA, according to a CFCT spokesperson. Other states require students to make commitments after they graduate, such as to live and work in the state — as is the case for New Yorkers who receive the Excelsior Scholarship.

But there are also commonalities when it comes to who can benefit from these programs. While most programs don't go so far as to include a residency requirement after graduation, many do require that students either be residents of that state or have attended high school there.

Many also require students enroll in college full-time, which Tiffany Jones, education policy director at the Education Trust, said excludes a growing population of students in higher education: those who have long been dubbed "non-traditional students." As institutions are looking for ways to add flexibility to their educational programs to meet the needs of more students over the age of 25 — who are often working and have children — Jones said that, ironically, this accessibility movement is leaving them out.

The idea of designing college promise programs with adults in mind, however, has been gaining momentum over the past few years, and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) is currently assisting a number of states in establishing "Promise-type financial aid programs" specifically targeted toward adult learners. In May 2019, for example, the state of Washington passed the Workforce Education Investment Act, which covers tuition costs at community colleges and public institutions with no age or residency requirements, in part to help adults succeed in the workforce.

But that's not where higher education advocates' concerns around inclusivity end. Some have argued the focus on the two-year sector excludes students looking to attend a four-year institution, especially as more jobs continue to prioritize candidates with bachelor's degrees. Others have worried free college will draw students away from four-year institutions into two-year programs, and that they will not later transfer to schools where they could receive bachelor's degrees. Still more have expressed concern about whether free college programs are sacrificing the quality of programs for the quantity of students who may now enroll, and whether we will see an overall drop in college completion rates.

Many critics have also argued that in all the excitement around free tuition, students and parents are being misled to think that they won't have to contribute anything toward their education. In fact, Jones noted, a majority of the costs associated with enrolling in college, including community colleges, come from non-tuition fees — such as housing, transportation, and books — and needy students will likely still have to take out some amount in loans, particularly in the case of "last dollar" programs. 

Free college is not synonymous with debt-free college, Jones explained. So, why the focus on the two-year sector?

Jones said it's most likely due to the fact that states are working with a limited pool of funds, and lawmakers are looking to target financial assistance to low-income students, who often attend community colleges in larger numbers.

But the conversation is changing.

Karole Dachelet of the Education Commission of the States, which tracks state legislation, said state policymakers are introducing bills — or working toward that goal — to expand free college programs to four-year schools. Plus, more state leaders are proposing "debt-free college" programs through federal and state partnerships.

For example, in March Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) reintroduced the Debt-Free College Act, a bill that would provide states with a dollar-for-dollar federal match in exchange for the money they use to fund students' cost of attendance without having to take out loans. A few former Democratic presidential candidates supported this bill, such as Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).

Former presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who ran on a platform of free college in the previous election cycle, introduced his College for All Act in 2017 to provide $47 billion per year to eliminate undergraduate tuition and fees at public colleges and universities. Earlier this summer, however, he proposed to tackle student loan debt as well, and introduced a bill to cancel all $1.6 trillion in outstanding student loan debt — including private and graduate school debt — paid for through a tax on Wall Street. Sanders’ plan expands on that of his fellow former candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.), who proposed to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt for every borrower earning less than six figures.

"[Higher Education] is more important than ever, but also more unaffordable than ever," Jones said, adding that free college is most politicians' response to how they can bring down the price tag "or demonstrate they are trying to solve this crisis."

The Why: Free College Is a Message We Can All Get Behind, or Not

Despite the aforementioned critique, there is data to suggest the free college movement has made positive change and helped encourage more students to enroll in higher education. Policy analysts attribute its success to the simplicity of the message of "free college" — that anyone can earn a degree regardless of their ability to pay for it. Dachelet specifically said the concept "removes thought barriers" for those who presumed they couldn’t afford college, and that it "can be a catalyst for conversation for them."

For example, according to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, the Tennessee Promise requirement to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has resulted in 56,000 students submitting applications, the highest in the state’s history. Plus, a recent report found that the Oregon Promise grant program, which debuted in 2016, increased enrollment at community colleges between 4 and 5 percentage points in two years. Other studies have shown that lowering the cost of college through both need- and merit-based aid increases the probability that a student will enroll by 3.6 to 4 percentage points per $1,000 in aid.

There are, however, studies that suggest the opposite — that giving more financial aid actually leads to fewer graduates. In a recent report from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the authors warn that "a government that pays for a greater share of each student's college education can afford to send fewer of those students to college, resulting in lower overall degree attainment." Further, the authors state that "without the ability to raise revenue through tuition, colleges may have fewer resources to spend on each student's education."

Where Do We Go From Here? The Uncertain Role and Future of Financial Aid

As the conversation around a federal free college system continues, it's important to acknowledge both the philosophical and practical implications of potentially moving away from a fully need-based formula for federal aid, such as distributing free college funds before other aid through a first-dollar funding model.

"Need-based financial aid arose out of the idea that students and parents have the primary responsibility to pay for postsecondary education, partly in recognition of the fact that we do not live in a world of unlimited resources," Draeger said. "The practical reality of limited dollars necessitates some way to differentiate various levels of financial need. There are philosophical arguments that some schools make that students should make some sort of contribution toward their education expenses regardless of income level, but even then, the extent of the student contribution or whether the school provides opportunities for those students to make that contribution are dependent on some sort of need analysis formula."

A task force NASFAA convened in 2016 to explore this dynamic shared similar concerns, and noted that the future of federal financial aid depends very much on how a national free college program would function — either as another federal program working in conjunction with other longstanding federal aid programs, or as block grants to states, potentially in place of all former federal aid.

"Depending upon the funding structure of a national promise plan, questions remain regarding the role of most, if not all, of the federal student aid programs, including the federal Pell Grant program, the campus-based programs, and, especially for debt-free programs, the federal Direct Loan program," the group wrote.

Regardless, the task force wrote, Congress and the Department of Education (ED) would need to work hand-in-hand to explore what could be "a wholesale reengineering of the existing student financial aid infrastructure."

Draeger also said he wondered if ED would change student aid from a voucher system to a direct payment to certain institutions and whether it would have implications for institutional governance and autonomy.

Until then, Draeger said, we have the opportunity to take a close look at state and local free college programs as they grow, and adapt and learn from their successes and mistakes.

"At this point, the free college movement that is progressing at the state and local levels is providing some much needed data about what works and doesn’t work from a college access and success standpoint," he said.

Continue to Part 2 of this Free College Series >>

Publication Date: 1/1/0001

Related Content

Annual Business Meeting & Policy Update: Spring 2024: Annual Business Meeting & Policy Update: Spring 2024


"Our Confidence With the Department of Education Is Wavering:" Members React to the Rocky Rollout of the 2024-25 FAFSA


View Desktop Version