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The future of free college

More states examine programs to increase affordability
University Business, December 2018
Jennifer Mishory, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, discusses how more states are likely to consider "promise programs" in the new year.
Jennifer Mishory, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, discusses how more states are likely to consider "promise programs" in the new year.

Every election season, hopeful candidates pitch various plans to make college affordable for everyone. And in the past few years, dozens of states, localities and schools have proposed free college policies sometimes known as “promise programs.”

However, these initiatives often set strict requirements that exclude many students who need the most assistance.

Jennifer Mishory, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, says more than a dozen states are likely to consider promise programs in the new year, and should learn from the successes and stumbling blocks of already established programs.

“State legislators serious about spurring enrollment, lowering debt and addressing inequities in our higher education system should ensure that proposed promise programs provide both a clear message and a clear benefit to those who need it most.”

Education funding in general has suffered from drastic cuts in recent years, but your research shows that many of the promise or free college programs actually increased in their scope and funding.

Different people have different definitions of what a free college program might be. I define it as a financial aid program that covers at least tuition, possibly other costs as well, for a significant subset of students in a location.

In my research, I focused particularly on state programs. I looked at what programs were out there at the state level during the 2008 recession, as a guide to how robust they might be. There were six that really popped out as meeting my criteria.

I was curious to see how those programs fared in terms of funding, particularly before and after the recession, and to see whether they retained their financial support. The answer was yes.

Even at a time when per-student funding was going down, and where financial aid investments were going down per student, all of the programs actually retained funding over time.

Did these various programs have common factors?

There were a few things that stood out. In some cases, it was the budget mechanics of funding a program like this as a defined benefit. That meant that it was more likely to be protected.

In several states, I heard from a variety of folks—including policymakers, advocates and aid administrators—who said having that clearly defined benefit meant that people, particularly legislators, understood the commitment that they were making to students and families.

They were more likely to continue to fund the programs, even during the tough budget times.

Another theme I heard was the guaranteed benefit structure. A guarantee to cover this particular benefit for any student who qualified meant that oftentimes you had champions on the ground who were dedicated to making sure that people knew about it and were signing up.

They really drove enrollment in the programs and kept them alive.

One interesting point is that some of these programs had income caps and some did not. There’s a big conversation around how universal versus how targeted you can make any aid program, including some of these free college programs.

It’s notable that there was a mix in terms of how targeted these programs were.

You write about federal, state and local promise-type programs. Give me an idea of what a local program might look like.

It might be a combination of local institutions—the city, the county and philanthropy—coming together and figuring out how to fund something. They vary widely. I’d recommend checking the College Promise Campaign, which has done a lot of research on local programs.

Over the years, as education funding tightens, some of these programs have stricter requirements. For example, many of them exclude nontraditional students.

Right, and that’s something that I talk a fair amount about in my “Future of Statewide College Promise Programs” report (

Some states are making requirement choices that are driven by cost-containment questions.

Obviously, there’s a desire on the part of policymakers to make sure that they’re doing something about high college costs and student debt.

But, if a state is not ensuring that the program is accessible to nontraditional students, then many potential students get left out.

I believe it’s important to avoid some of those inequitable cost-containment measures that we’re seeing—things like excluding students who are not coming straight out of high school. We have to make sure that older students can benefit as well.

Another thing would be looking at the full cost of college, not just tuition. Additional expenses for books and supplies and transportation sometimes create huge gaps in what students are able to afford, and that may be a larger challenge for the lowest-income students.

Then there’s the distinction between a first dollar program and a last dollar program. If you design a free college program as a first dollar tuition program, it means that aid is the primary source of funding before any other grant or award.

If the student also qualifies for aid from other sources, that aid can be used for books, transportation, supplies, rent—all of those things.

But if you make a last dollar tuition program, then someone who already has most of their tuition costs covered, but is struggling with those other additional costs, is not really going to benefit.

The focus of some of these programs has changed from needs-based to more of a merit system.

Some of the free college programs do have merit requirements, and some of those requirements are actually quite high. Then there are a set of programs that don’t look at need at all, they just look at merit. Georgia’s HOPE scholarship, for example, is a merit program.

Doesn’t that go against the spirit of these programs?

Ensuring that students who are facing high costs and who wouldn’t otherwise enroll in school without financial aid are able to benefit is really important in any aid system.

Schools already have their own merit requirements—there’s no need to have additional requirements for an aid program. These requirements may mean that students who really need that aid are unable to access it.

A total of 16 states now have at least one statewide promise, or free college, program. How many people are actually being helped?

Anytime a free college program is proposed the question is: “How successful will the program be at actually helping people access college who wouldn’t otherwise, or who are struggling with college costs?”

The answers really depend on the design of the program offered.

Some programs are quite limited, and don’t actually reach a lot of students—maybe 3 or 4 percent of students in the state. Some of the larger ones reach just 9 or 10 percent.

What would your ideal free college program look like?

I think there’s a role for the federal government to motivate and bolster state investments to provide a debt free-like pathway to a college education.

If you have financing coming from both the federal and state governments, you’re more able to provide aid in a way that doesn’t leave out students who truly need the help, or that more robustly considers costs beyond tuition.

Looking specifically at states, I would say make sure that your program does not include a merit requirement and does not exclude nontraditional students.

We’ve seen some programs that include a requirement to stay in state after college, and if you don’t, the grant becomes a loan. I think that creates a confusing and complicated message that further discourages low-income students from taking advantage of programs.

It’s sort of a bait-and-switch tactic in many ways, so that’s another requirement I would avoid.

It’s important for these programs to have a clear, simple message so students understand and families know what to expect and what financial aid in their state means.

Broadly, I would say again, look at costs beyond tuition and ensure that the students who actually need the help most can qualify, because in some cases and in some states, they can’t.

Tim Goral is senior editor of UB.