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For Low-Income Students, Free College Often Comes at a High Price

This story is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income and homeless students, English learners, students of color, and students with disabilities.

As rising college tuition fees continue to price students out of higher education, the promise of “free college” sounds too good to be true. 

That’s because it often isn’t free, according to a recent report from The Education Trust. The report, A Promise Fulfilled: A Framework for Equitable Free College Programs, reviewed 15 free college programs and 16 proposed plans from states across the country to assess who they benefit and how effective they actually are. 

Researchers found that without an explicit focus on creating opportunity for those across the economic spectrum, these programs miss the mark. Effectively, the report found, many “free college” programs end up helping higher-income students while leaving many low-income students to fend for themselves. 

Furthermore, behind a complex web of grants, eligibility requirements, and hidden costs, there’s high variance in what “free” actually means. 

Free College Programs Don’t Cover the Full Cost of Attendance 

According to The Education Trust, one major hurdle to affordability is that many states have structured their programs to cover tuition only after all other aid has been applied, and therefore don’t provide aid for major additional expenses. 

Pell Grants often cover the cost of tuition for low-income students attending community colleges. But tuition and associated fees only make up 20 percent of the budget for community college students. So these programs (known as “last dollar” programs) leave the student to pay for expenses such as housing, food, transportation, and course materials. 

For many students on the lower end of the economic spectrum, these additional costs––the bulk of the cost of attaining a postsecondary degree––are simply prohibitive. 

“[Students] have to eat. They have to have shelter. They have to buy books,” said Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at The Education Trust, in an interview with NPR. “If a politician is selling a program saying, ‘I’m making college free,’ and they're not dealing with any of that stuff except for tuition, that can be really problematic.”

This explains why The Education Trust found that in states where free college programs were not restricted to low-income individuals, middle- and upper-income students were more likely to receive support. Students from higher income brackets can afford to foot these extra costs and take advantage of grant money.  

For instance, 82 percent of free college participants in Delaware’s Student Excellent Equals Degree (SEED) 2018 program were middle- or upper-income students. In Missouri, over a third of free college recipients came from families earning more than $100,000 annually. 

Proponents of free colleges argue that there are less tangible though still important benefits of these programs for low-income students.  

Mike Krause, executive director of Tennessee Higher Education Commission, told Nashville Public Radio that these programs can help students realize that college is a possibility for them. Since Governor Haslam implemented Tennessee’s Promise in 2015, 1,700 more low-income Tennessee natives had enrolled in post-secondary programs per year. 

Krause said these students are frequently unaware of how Pell Grants work, and they don’t consider college an option for themselves at all. In addition to offering financial aid, Krause says Tennessee’s Promise has publicized a clear message that college is possible. 

An Equity-Based Model 

So how can free college programs help more low-income students? The Education Trust created a set of criteria that, taken together, form an equity-based model for free college. 

Along with covering fees and costs of living along with tuition, these criteria include providing flexible enrollment options and offering benefits for returning students and adults. 

While some states only cover tuition at two-year post-secondary programs, the report encourages states to cover tuition for four years of college. That’s because when state programs cover only two-years, they end up shunting students into programs with lower graduation rates and worse economic outcomes for graduates. In effect, such policies increase the likelihood that students won’t complete their degree and limit their economic mobility if they do.  

Some programs require students to maintain a certain number of credits per semester or maintain more than half-time enrollment. However, these requirements pose a particular burden for students who need to work while in school or take care of family members. 

The Education Trust also recommends that programs not restrict eligibility to recent high school graduates or first-time college students, as students who don’t attend college directly after high school make up over 40 percent of the postsecondary population.

Together, these recommendations show how free college programs can widen the opportunities for postsecondary achievement and help states make college affordable for all students. 

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