Part 3: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Financial Aid Professionals Unpack Free College

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Editor's Note: This is the third and final article in a series examining the free college movement from the perspective of financial aid professionals, the issues they have encountered, and how they are working toward a better future for free college. Previous articles delved into the current landscape of free college, and how free college programs are funded.

Misleading messaging. A lack of communication. Gaps in counseling and follow-through. Despite the fact that there are hundreds of free college programs across the country, the diversity of those programs — sometimes even within a county or state — is causing headaches for financial aid administrators and leaving students scratching their heads over whether they qualify for program funds, and what exactly those funds cover.

Free college programs come in all shapes and sizes. While some programs disburse funds to students after other aid is applied (known as last-dollar programs), others award students those funds regardless of the other financial support they have received (known as a first-dollar programs). Some only cover the cost of tuition. Others go a step further to include fees and books. Some require students to remain and work in the state after graduation. Others have no obligations after they walk out the door.   

At the same time, it is becoming clear that despite these vast differences, there are commonalities in who free college programs are enticing to enroll in college, and who they are truly serving — and neglecting. Financial aid professionals who interact with students each day have experienced first-hand how the message of free college is being perceived — for better or worse — and how intentions to serve low-income students may not practically target those learners when program criteria are established. 

Perhaps the most promising theme cropping up among free college programs is a desire to do more for students than waive tuition. Both program managers and financial aid professionals alike are taking a critical eye to how each dollar is spent, and how they can raise or shift funds to address the financial barriers that manifest after students get in the door and stop them from graduating. 


Thelma Ross, the director of financial aid at Prince George's Community College (PGCC), knows all too well about stretching program funds and the consequences of sending misleading messages about free college to community members. 

Prince George's County Promise Scholarship was established in the fall of 2017 to cover the cost of tuition and fees at the county's community college for the high-performing recent graduates of its high schools. The Maryland-based free college program follows what's known as a middle-dollar model — programs funds are disbursed after other aid is applied to cover remaining gaps in tuition, and additional funds (in this case $1,000 for the first three years of the program) cover the cost of books.

Implementation of the free college program was rocky. Funding for the program was only secured in July 2017 — just months before the program was set to begin — and "there was not enough time to market [the program] and let students know," Ross said. Students that met the GPA requirement of 3.0 or higher had, for the most part, already committed to institutions by the middle of the summer, Ross explained, and only 95 students received promise program funds that first year. The next fall, 195 additional students were awarded the funds, and the third cohort included another 259 students.

Promise Program Manager Kimberly Johnson said the county has been able to increase the number of students receiving free tuition and books by training program coordinators to conduct outreach at local high schools, as well as by sending packets of information to local churches and community members.

Plus, the state of Maryland established its own last-dollar free college program this past fall. That brought prospective students to PGCC inquiring about the state program, Ross said, only to find out it has stricter eligibility criteria — such as an income cap of $150,000 and an agreement to work in the state. That's when many apply for the county's program instead, Ross said.  

As the number of program recipients grows, however, there are fewer dollars available for each student. 

"We are in conversations now about whether or not we are going to continue to offer the same level of book support that we are currently offering. As the program has grown, that needs to be revisited," Ross said. 

Many free college programs have had to rethink and tweak their structure to secure their future. In a recent survey of more than 100 free college programs, Robyn Hiestand, the director of research and policy at the College Promise Campaign (CPC), found many programs have had to make budget adjustments to remain financially viable — such as instituting stricter eligibility criteria, reducing award amounts, and decreasing administrative overhead and staff positions.

In addition to accommodating more currently enrolled students, Ross said a new slew of prospective learners has been inquiring about enrolling at PGCC — though many are confused about what the program entails. 

"The scholarship is not ‘free college' — it is a scholarship with criteria associated with it. There are stipulations to receive the money," Ross said, adding that the state program has exacerbated a misunderstanding of free college. "[People] thought they could just walk onto your campus and start classes and it would be paid for by the state."

Ross said when the state program was announced, her office received hundreds of phone calls from people who received information about it in the mail, but were not eligible for the funds. For many, it was because they have been out of college for more than two years — if not 20. 

"It was misleading for the community, and we had to do some unpacking of that," Ross said. "It's an emotional let-down of thinking that something was available, and what it could do for them, then to find out that's not the case — and there's no follow-up with those people."

Looking to the future, Ross said the county recently convened a committee that is examining its own program and discussing how it could better assist students in a meaningful way. For example, the committee is expected to determine whether there should be different eligibility criteria, such as an income cap like the state's program, as well as if they can somehow transition the program to a first-dollar model.

Critics of free college programs have argued that because many of the neediest students already have their tuition and fees covered by other financial aid, such as Pell Grants, last-dollar programs subsidize the tuition of students who can otherwise afford to pay for school. Ross said she and her colleagues in the field are having those same talks. 

"Where we struggle, and our colleagues too, is that nine out of 10 [free college programs] are last-dollar scholarships," Ross said. "You have effectively taken out the most needy students — the ones you were claiming to serve. Now folks are trying to figure out how to repackage the program so that it really doesn't get to benefit a population of students that doesn't really need it."

Ross said the committee — as of January 2020 — was discussing ways to use its funds "in a way that impacts those that the program is designed to help." 


Students in Kalamazoo, Michigan also have their pick of free college programs, such as the first-dollar, city-wide Kalamazoo Promise Program at both two- and four-year institutions, and the last-dollar Kalamazoo Valley Accelerated Associate Degree Program (KVAAP) offered to Kalamazoo Valley Community College students. Michigan also has what's known as "Promise Zones," inspired by the success of the Kalamazoo Promise Program, in which the private sector contributes to scholarships to cover the tuition and fees of local students.    

Alisha Cederberg, the director of financial aid at Kalamazoo Valley College, which enrolls the most Kalamazoo Promise students but is not in a designated Promise Zone, dubbed the Kalamazoo Promise "the best scholarship on the planet" — though it is not without its fair share of challenges. 

The Kalamazoo Promise awards students program funds before other aid is applied, so they can use Pell Grants and other financial aid to cover non-tuition costs — if they file the FAFSA. However, Cederberg has found students aren't taking advantage of that opportunity because many of those pursuing the scholarship are first-generation students who often struggle to complete the FAFSA due to missing information or confusion, she said. 

"Because they don't understand that there are so many other costs, [it's a challenge] getting them to realize that the FAFSA is just as essential for those who have the Kalamazoo Promise [than for those who don't]," Cederberg said. "That's what's kind of missing from these discussions. It's not free college. It's free tuition."

Cederberg added that she's also seen her students — because they are so tied to the idea of higher education being completely "free" — shying away from programs with greater earning potentials due to intensive time commitments that would require them to take out loans for non-tuition costs, such as child care.

"Financial aid, [including loans], should be used for other costs that prevent you from going to college," Cederberg said "Every year, it's getting harder to explain that to students."   

In addition, Cederberg, like Ross, said the idea of free college "has brought a lot of people to the door with bottom-line prep-work." Her institution is working to help students understand the obligations of enrolling, and conducting intake interviews for Kalamazoo Promise students so they know of the support services available to them through the school.

Students participating in KVAAP, which can be used along with Kalamazoo Promise funds, have access to support services and are assigned academic advisors for personalized counseling — which Cederburg said is essential for ensuring students graduate.

"If we're going to invest in these students and really push them to be full-time … we're making sure we have a curriculum inside and outside the classroom," Cederberg said. "That's a lot of where we use funds."

At the same time, Cederberg noted that she has also found students to be deterred by the prospect of having to undergo academic counseling as part of KVAAP, as well as having to attend full-time. By the end of the fall 2019 term, the program had served 120 students, though the goal was to provide funds to 300 students.


The Santa Barbara City College Promise also aims to address students' needs more holistically — such as by paying for a cosmetology student's makeup kit, which can cost up to $700. 

The first-dollar program, funded by the community and created in 2016, covers students' tuition and fees, books, and supplies, which is pertinent as many students at the community college are enrolled in career-training programs and need a host of costly items to work in their respective fields. 

"It's unique that we are funded privately — it's really the community coming together," said Sergio Lagunas, promise program manager and former financial aid advisor. "There are a lot of folks willing to invest in our community."

As with other promise programs, there are eligibility requirements for students: they must come from high schools in the surrounding area, be enrolled full-time, maintain academic standings, and meet with an academic counselor — though the program does not take into account their academic standing from high school.

Lagunas said the program is invested in its students' success in college, and wants them to focus solely on their academics and not have to work to fund their education.

"Students are realizing that working too many hours is affecting their progress," Lagunas said. "We have a lot of students coming into my office to share stories about how they worked more than 40 hours trying to sustain themselves, but then said, ‘I quit my job, and committed 100% to my education, because I realized the [program] is covering everything.'"

The program is also unique in the way it disburses funds — it has an agreement with the campus bookstore in which students pick up their books free of charge, and the program is billed for them afterward.

"We wanted to provide something that was more than just a scholarship program, so they don't have to worry about those transactional experiences," Lagunas said.  

The program has served about 3,000 students since its launch four years ago, and Lagunas said that, as of January 2020, program officials were looking to expand their efforts, such as by covering transfer application fees and costly graduation packets required to attend graduation ceremonies. 

"We wanted to have a structural change in how students in the community access college education," Lagunas said. "We wanted to be accessible, so that incoming students can see that they can come here and get a certificate, a degree, or transfer to their dream school knowing that [we] will cover their expenses to get there." 

A Brighter Future

As the debate around free college and its effects on student access and success continues to unfold, financial aid professionals are working to ensure that those programs are in practice reaching as far as they can to support students. They are discussing what costs they should — and could afford — to cover, how income caps might better target programs toward low-income students, and how to tie academic support and career counseling to program requirements.

And while the future of what free college and its relationship to need-based aid looks like is murky — especially if it is implemented at a national level as former presidential candidates have proposed — it's clear there is growing support for some form of tuition-free higher education. In that vein, it is crucial those conversations continue.

In California, Michigan, and Maryland they are doing just that.

"The funding as we see it, we want to be able to utilize [it] in a way that's meaningful," Ross said. "Everything is on the table." 

Publication Date: 5/13/2020

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