Free State College Programs Are Growing, But Still Help Few Students

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As 2020 presidential candidates debate America’s student debt crisis, researchers are measuring the effectiveness of current college funding strategies such as College Promise programs.

Promise programs guarantee free in-state tuition and are funded through state-controlled dollars. Such programs can be an essential part of academic and economic success for students, but certain states’ eligibility requirements limit the programs to a small percentage of students, according to a June report by The Century Foundation, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank.

Total investment in this type of aid has risen by an average of $107 million per year for the last three years. Yet they are projected to make up only 12 percent of all state public student aid in fiscal year 2020, according to researchers.

“Well-designed place-based tuition-free guarantees can, under the right conditions,” increase college applications and enrollment among low-income students, increase credential attainment, and even improve student outcomes at the K–12 level, the report states. “The rapid growth of such programs makes it even more urgent to ensure they are designed in a way that fulfills their promise.”

Most Promise programs offer last dollar funding, which requires students use Pell grants and other awarded aid toward the cost of tuition before the state covers the remaining gap — a system that researchers say leaves out people who need additional financial help. “The hesitancy to commit to a truly universal “free college” model has meant that in some states as few as 5 percent of all students actually qualify for the program,” the study states.

Furthermore, many older students are ineligible for these programs because they tend to attend school part-time and are considered financially independent, say researchers.

In addition, many of these programs offer free tuition at community colleges but not at four-year universities. The limited options can deter high-achieving, low-income students from going to more selective four-year schools where they are more likely to have better outcomes, the report says.

While some states offer merit-based tuition funding, The Century Foundation chose to focus on Promise programs because they are more inclusive. Merit-based requirements such as GPA and ACT/SAT minimums have been found to disproportionately benefit White students, according to the report.

Promise programs have been offered since 1990, but didn’t truly take off until 2014 when the Tennessee Promise Scholarship, which offers two-free years at a community or technical college, was enacted. Since then, 15 additional Promise programs have been implemented. There are currently 22 of these programs offered across 19 states.

Growth in popularity for the free aid has increased rapidly. These programs comprise nearly one-quarter of the growth in state public student aid since 2015.