The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
March 7, 2018

States can lead the way in making college affordable

March 7, 2018

Despite the attention paid to the impending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and the visibility of congressional hearings on college finances, it is the states that have primary responsibility for US higher education.

College prices, the cost of living, available financial aid, and college opportunities vary dramatically from state to state. The result is that opportunities for accessing a high-quality, affordable college education depend on where you live.

Many states are developing innovative strategies to break down financial barriers for students. Some of these policies directly address tuition prices. Others help students meet their educational goals in a timely manner by, for example, encouraging academic preparation for college or making it easier to transfer from two-year to four-year institutions. State efforts to improve college access and success—or the lack of such efforts—could either diminish or reinforce the differences across states.

Policies that sound simple and powerful

States make headlines for promising “free” college. The Tennessee Promise was the first statewide program to pledge to fill the gap between federal and state grant aid and the cost of community college tuition for students meeting certain requirements. New York’s Excelsior Scholarship program makes both two-year and four-year public colleges tuition-free for students who meet stringent requirements during and after college.

These programs send a clear message that college is affordable, but they frequently direct funds toward students who may not need financial help.

Free college programs tend to help students whose incomes are too high to qualify for need-based aid. In contrast, federal Pell grants and other need-based grants provide their largest awards to students with the lowest incomes. (These low-income students often don’t benefit from free college offers because grant aid covers their full tuition.) The current federal approach takes a step toward narrowing resource gaps among students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, while free college programs give all students the same total subsidy, equal to the published tuition price. In other words, free college programs generally don’t direct funds to students who need them most.

The tuition price of college is just one piece of the college affordability puzzle. Many financial barriers, particularly for community college students, involve trying to cover living expenses without working full time. Pell grants can help with living expenses, but most free college programs, as they’ve been enacted so far, do not.

In addition, underfunded colleges frequently lack the resources to support student success. Free tuition programs can hit roadblocks when other funding priorities threaten and when the strain on institutional budgets raises questions about the quality of the “free” education the state can offer.

Policies that can reduce financial barriers without putting money in students’ pockets

Other state efforts to reduce financial barriers to college deserve more attention than they get. Well-designed need-based state grant programs can target funds to students with limited resources and provide incentives for them to prepare for college.

Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars Program engages with low-income seventh- and eighth-grade students to encourage them to prepare for college. The program promises students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches that they will have up to four years’ tuition and fees covered at an Indiana public college or university with a combination of state and institutional grants if they meet certain eligibility criteria.

Some states are focusing on improving high school students’ academic preparation for college or making it easier for students who begin at community colleges to transfer to four-year colleges. California’s Early Assessment Program, which brings high schools and colleges together to ensure that students are prepared to do college work, and Oregon’s Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer Degree, which ensures that students who complete their studies at community colleges can transfer seamlessly to four-year universities, may not sound as good as “free” college, but they might make at least as big a contribution to educational attainment.

Students don’t just need to get in the door of college. They must be prepared to tackle college-level academic challenges. They must be able to take enough courses to complete a degree in a timely manner and know that credits from one institution will be honored at another if they transfer. And they must attend institutions that have the resources and the incentives to provide the academic and social supports they need to learn, to meet high academic standards, and to earn degrees of value.

The conversation about making college affordable cannot just be about price. It must be about students and institutions having the resources—financial and academic—to meet their goals. States should seek out examples that promise more than a low price.

Professor Tracy Camp teaches an Intro to Computer Science class at the Colorado School of Mines on November 15, 2017 in Golden, CO. Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images.


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.