Report: Free College Movement Continues to Exclude Older Students

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

While College Promise programs—often referred to as “free college” programs—increase access to higher education for some, a new report found that a majority of efforts continue to exclude older students due to strict eligibility requirements related to age, enrollment type, and academic standing, as well as a lack of financial support for non-tuition costs.

The report, published by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), found that while “the growth in College Promise programs offers a unique opportunity to intentionally serve students who might overwise bypass college,” programs with such eligibility criteria are primarily used by students who already planned to go to college, and can be difficult to meet for those toying with the idea. For example, the report’s authors wrote that “students from higher-income backgrounds—those who are more likely to attend college without financial aid and scholarships—are more likely, for a range of reasons, to meet ‘merit’ and enrollment intensity requirements than students from lower-income backgrounds.” 

Additionally, adult learners with jobs and/or children often cannot meet full-time enrollment requirements attached to many programs, and many require students to be recent high school graduates. In fact, the report’s authors noted that a majority of the existing 300 College Promise programs—which span 44 states—are inaccessible to students over the age of 25.

“College Promise programs can make college attainable for all those who are interested in pursuing higher education as a route to economic success, including parents with families, who stand to benefit disproportionately from affordable postsecondary opportunities,” the authors wrote. “Ensuring that College Promise programs are inclusive to the students who need them most should be a top priority for the College Promise movement moving forward.” 

The funding model that a majority of existing College Promise programs follow—namely a “last-dollar” approach in which money is disbursed after other financial aid and scholarships are applied—exacerbates this issue. Meredith Billings, a postdoctoral research and teaching associate at the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia, wrote last year for the Brookings Institution’s Brown Chalkboard Center that last-dollar programs “tend to subsidize middle- or high-income students because they are not eligible for federal and/or state grant aid.”

 “Since middle- and high-income students are more likely to go to college, usually last-dollar programs do not increase college access—instead, they may shift students toward the promise-eligible postsecondary institutions,” she wrote.

In addition to removing eligibility requirements, the IWPR report suggested that College Promise programs adopt first-dollar models, which would provide students with financial aid prior to and regardless of other aid and scholarships they may receive, to allow students to cover costs such as childcare.

The concept of College Promise programs geared specifically toward adults has been gaining momentum over the past few years, and a handful of states have been implementing programs for this population of students, such as TennesseeWyoming, and Milkwaukee. Most recently, 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. 

As many presidential candidates continue to discuss their views on free college, a Quinnipiac University National Poll found that a majority of voters do not support it. Specifically, 52% of those polled opposed making all public colleges in the United States free to attend, while 45% supported the idea. Follow along as policymakers continue this discussion this election cycle with NASFAA’s 2020 Presidential Cheat Sheet.


Publication Date: 7/3/2019

Joelle F | 7/3/2019 12:3:27 PM

Hi Amy- We are interested in hearing more about this issue- would you be able to forward us that email to [email protected] ?

Staff Reporter

Amy P | 7/3/2019 8:31:49 AM

When I read about these programs I think of a student I once worked with. She had reached out to the financial aid office because she received an email, out of the blue, saying that she was eligible for a state financial aid grant and asked her to click on a link and enter personal information including her Social Security number. She was afraid that it was a phishing attempt. It turned out to be total legitimate and it struck me that the student could have lost out due to simply not being "in the loop" regarding state aid processes. This was a while ago and while I can't see any state doing this due to security concerns I think it does bring to light some of the communication and procedural barriers out there for so-called non-traditional students.

You must be logged in to comment on this page.

Comments Disclaimer: NASFAA welcomes and encourages readers to comment and engage in respectful conversation about the content posted here. We value thoughtful, polite, and concise comments that reflect a variety of views. Comments are not moderated by NASFAA but are reviewed periodically by staff. Users should not expect real-time responses from NASFAA. To learn more, please view NASFAA’s complete Comments Policy.

Related Content

Tip Sheet for Adult Learners


Tips to Help Students in Unique Situations and Populations


View Desktop Version