New Study Highlights Evidence to Support Free College Proposals

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

As the idea of nationwide tuition-free community college picks up momentum in the wake of President Joe Biden’s plan to fund such an undertaking, a new study provides evidence on a smaller scale showing the promise of free college.

The new study detailing the findings from a randomized control trial showcases some of the first causal evidence from a long-term study on free college. A co-author of the study, Douglas Harris, summarized the findings in a blog post for The Brookings Institution.

The study provides policymakers with evidence from a randomized trial titled The Degree Project (TDP), in which ninth graders at half of Milwaukee Public Schools were given $12,000 in last-dollar aid to pay for their college education once they graduated from high school.

In order to use the funds for their postsecondary education, students had to graduate from high school on time with a GPA of 2.5 and a class attendance rate of at least 90%. Students also had to fill out the FAFSA and have at least one dollar of unmet need.

They were then able to use the $12,000 to attend any of the 66 public, in-state, two- or four-year colleges in Wisconsin. 

With TDP beginning in the fall of 2011, those students are now roughly 22 years old, and their outcomes were tracked through high school and college. Evidence was gathered through the randomized trial by comparing the control and treatment group outcomes, finding that for students who met the performance requirements, the program increased graduation from two-year colleges by 3 percentage points.

“This might seem small, but the denominator here is comprised of low-income 9th graders,” the study noted. “Half of the control group did not even graduate from high school, let alone college. The effect amounts to a 25% increase in two-year degrees.”

Notably, and importantly for those advocating for free college, the framing and design of the program as free two-year college changed student decisions in shifting enrollment from four-year to two-year colleges. Students were told clearly up front that the program made two-year college free, but only reduced the cost of four-year college, leading more students to choose two-year college when presented with the options.

“Students likely would have been able to use more of the $12,000 if they had shifted to four-year colleges,” the study added, since the cost of in-state community college was slightly less than the amount provided. “The only plausible reason for shifting to two-year colleges is that they were really attracted to the idea of free college.”

The study also found that the merit requirements undermined the program’s effectiveness, as only 21% of eligible students ended up meeting them.

In total, the findings from the study suggest that the aid is most effective when it is “open access” — meaning students are provided with the information early in their high school tenure and the aid is presented as free college, but comes with no merit requirements.

Biden’s free college proposal calls for making two years of community college tuition-free for all, regardless of income or merit. Biden’s proposal has several similarities to TDP, and the “early commitment of aid” coming in the form of a nationwide federal program could have additional positive effects on enrollment.

The study asserts that with more evidence on the impact of free college — both on a small scale and statewide level — “the idea of a large, federal free-college program therefore has more and more credibility.”

Additionally, the study points to bipartisan support for free college, noting that one of the first and most well-known statewide programs providing tuition-free community college was put in place by former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, a Republican.

The fact that Biden’s proposal applies only to community colleges, which also provide career and vocational education that Republicans have historically supported, could help garner support from both sides of the political aisle, the study notes, as Biden attempts to achieve bipartisan agreement on his infrastructure package before utilizing budget reconciliation as a last resort. 

“It is not often that an idea comes around that addresses a widely acknowledged problem and has both research support and a fair degree of bipartisan political support,” the study concludes. “The stars seem aligned to make some form of national free college a reality. The more evidence we see, the more that would seem to be a step forward.” 


Publication Date: 5/14/2021

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