The national interest in narrowing the gaps in educational opportunity across socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic groups and in increasing educational attainment cannot be addressed without a strong federal effort. Pell grants, the primary form of federal investment in higher education, provide funding for low-income students to attend college. Increasing them is important but not sufficient. Among other issues, they do not solve funding and tuition differences across states.
A federal-state partnership to fund higher education could help address these equity gaps, but whether such a program achieves policymakers’ goals will depend on the details. This brief looks at college affordability proposals—including those for free or debt-free college— and examines who would benefit from different plans and how the distribution of benefits changes based on program design decisions.