College & Workforce Readiness

4 Things You Need to Know About ‘Free College’ Proposals

By Catherine Gewertz — May 01, 2019 3 min read
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“Free college” proposals are multiplying like rabbits as Democratic presidential candidates jump on board with the idea. The most recent came from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren last week.

Federal lawmakers are proposing their own versions. Two Democratic senators—backed by some of the presidential hopefuls—have introduced the “Debt-Free College Act,” which would cover all costs of public college without requiring students to get loans. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has long called for programs that cover the cost of public-college tuition.

Half the states have versions of these programs, commonly known as “promise” programs, in place, according to the College Promise Campaign. Other states are debating versions of the programs fast and furiously (though most haven’t been enacted yet). Many cities have their own programs, too.

But all promise programs are not equal. Here are some key things to know as a flurry of proposals descends on you during this campaign season.

They generally don’t make college “free.”

The rhetoric around “free college” programs can make it seem like they cover all college costs for all students, but that’s not the case, said Sarah Pingel, an analyst who studies the issue at the Education Commission of the States. “They’re not typically the universal, you-don’t-have-to-pay-anything kind of thing people assume when they hear ‘free college,’” she said.

Most of the programs are scholarships that cover just the cost of tuition at community colleges. New York and Indiana are notable exceptions: Their scholarships cover tuition at four-year institutions. “Debt-free” proposals are different: they envision paying for most or all of the cost of attending college, so students don’t need to get loans.

Most promise programs are “last-dollar scholarships,” meaning that they pay for whatever portion of tuition is left over after students use grants and financial aid. That can mean that low-income students, in particular, still face the big problem of paying for expenses like housing and food, which can account for nearly half the expense of attending college, according to The Education Trust.

Not everyone can use them.

Promise programs often have rules that restrict their use to certain groups of students. Some, for instance, restrict participation to students in a certain family income bracket. Others require students to matriculate directly from high school to college, attend college fulltime, or choose certain fields of study in order to qualify.

Some programs also require that students meet minimum achievement markers, like grades or test scores, to get—or maintain—a promise scholarship. Since academic achievement is often linked to family income and educational background, these requirements can make it tougher for underserved students to get these scholarships.

It’s not clear that they all work.

A central idea behind “free college” proposals is to boost college enrollment. That’s important because many low-income students think they can’t afford college, so they don’t even apply. But signals are mixed on whether making tuition free actually increases college-going.

A study of Milwaukee’s program by the Brookings Institution found limited impact on enrollment. Researchers who examined five state programs found a wide range in how well they increase college attendance. Another study, on Georgia’s program, found a healthy boost, but also found that it aggravated differences in college access between wealthy and less wealthy students.

“Free college” isn’t a new idea.

Some states and regions have had promise programs going for a long time. New Jersey’s Educational Opportunity Fund, which began in 1968, has been cited as particularly progressive, since it covers costs beyond tuition, and provides support services for its targeted low-income student population.

And there was a time when students didn’t need scholarships to go to college in the U.S. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, most U.S. public colleges and universities were free, as National Public Radio notes.

Since then, however, college attendance has soared. And more recently, college pricetags have soared as states have decreased their support for higher education. Pell grant amounts for low-income students have increased, but not enough to keep up with the cost of college, so student debt—for all students, not just poor students—has soared.

And there you have it: We’re back to why plans for “free college” are proliferating. And why “free college” isn’t always the most accurate way to describe them.

Image: Pablo by Buffer

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.