Free college was on the national policy wish list during the 2016 election and is becoming a reality in an increasing number of states. The growth of these “college promise” programs raises an important question: should the federal government support state and local programs that promise to make college “free” as a strategy for increasing educational opportunity?
New York, Oregon, and Rhode Island are among the states that have followed Tennessee’s 2014 lead in implementing programs that promise broad groups of students they won’t have to pay tuition at some or all public colleges in the state. According to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, there are 234 college promise programs across the nation.
I recently led a group of experts in considering the appropriate federal role in these efforts, at the request of Educational Testing Service and the College Promise Campaign. We concluded that the federal government should find other ways to ensure access and success in quality postsecondary programs.
Considerable evidence indicates that the complexity of the college financing and student aid systems creates significant barriers to college access, and promises of free college send a simple message. But these programs’ details are complicated, and the variation means that some offer less support—particularly to low-income students—than they suggest.
Most of the state and local programs are “last dollar” programs. They don’t eliminate tuition and fees but promise to pay the difference between the federal and state grant aid students already receive and the sticker prices. Because need-based aid covers these charges for many low- and moderate-income students, the extra dollars go almost exclusively to students whose incomes are too high to qualify for these programs. The promise of free means middle- and upper-income students won’t have to pay tuition, as is already the case for most low-income students.
The federal government should not encourage states to provide these last-dollar subsidies that counteract the federal Pell grant program, which narrows the gaps between the resources available to low-income students and more affluent students.
If the federal government supported free-college programs, it would have to set detailed criteria to determine which programs would qualify. Would the federal government subsidize states that divert resources from community colleges to support middle-income students enrolling in those colleges? Would it reward states that turn grants into loans for students who leave the state after they graduate?
Rather than differentiating among state and local programs claiming to make college more affordable, the federal government should focus on increasing higher education access and success, particularly for students with limited resources. Lowering the tuition students pay is a means to this goal but not the final goal. Low tuition makes life easier for students, all other things equal. But policies that direct funds to middle- and upper-income students for tuition—instead of helping low-income students cover their living expenses or ensuring that broad-access institutions have the resources they need to support student success—do not increase educational attainment.
The federal government should base its policies on evidence about practices most likely to change the choices and behaviors of students, postsecondary institutions, and states in ways that improve postsecondary outcomes. It might make Pell grants simpler and more predictable, award Pell earlier than the senior year of high school, and even avoid the application process by basing eligibility on tax returns.
College affordability depends on more than tuition. It depends on students making good choices about what and where to study, on their having sufficient resources to support themselves while in school, and on their completing college with credentials of value. Promising free tuition to everyone may be the right path for some states and localities, but it should not be the basis of federal policy.