Home System concept Why free college is so elusive – and how we can get closer to its establishment

Why free college is so elusive – and how we can get closer to its establishment


Even at the local level, “free college” is easier said than done

Although many states have recently made efforts to waive tuition for certain groups, subsidizing college education is nothing new.

The GI Bill, enacted in 1944, provided veterans returning from World War II with tuition, books and supplies, equipment, counseling services, and “subsistence” for those wishing to continue their education. , according to the National Archives.
About 20 years later, in 1965, the Pell Grants were first created and are now the largest source of federal aid for students pursuing post-secondary education.
There have been other pushes at the state level, such as Georgia’s Hope Scholarship, a merit-based award that was launched in 1993 for students who maintain a 3.0 grade point average.

When city or state officials attempt to scrap tuition in one way or another — whether for four-year public universities or two-year community colleges — they think to avoid brain drain, said Elizabeth Bell, an assistant professor at Florida State University who studies higher education policy.

The goal, ultimately, is to preserve educational attainment and thus improve the economy, she says. That’s why programs, like the New York Excelsior Scholarship, require those who participate to stay in the state after graduating.

But creating these programs is easier said than done. The issue of college affordability and making colleges as accessible as possible is one that actually enjoys bipartisan support, Bell said — but the pushback comes in the details.

When it comes to universal programs — that is, programs that unequivocally waive tuition and fees — there may be reluctance to give money to families who could afford college. unaided, Bell said. Others worry that colleges will raise costs to capture more state funds because most people would not pay the advertised price.

There are also arguments about whether to create first-dollar programs, where funding is given to students before any other scholarship-based aid or funding, or whether to create last-dollar programs, which fill in the gaps that help and others financial rewards do not cover. The problem with last-dollar programs is that most of the money actually goes to high-income families, who may not get help from other areas, Bell said.

Most first-dollar programs actually exist locally, she said, because they support fewer students, making such programs easier to fund. On the other hand, many state programs are bottom dollar.

University of California system to waive tuition for Native American students
An exception to this rule is the Oklahoma Promise, a state first-dollar program that takes a more targeted approach. The scholarship primarily provides assistance to families earning less than $60,000 per year, and students who apply must also meet certain merit requirements.

Politically, it’s complicated. If you present a first-dollar program proposal, but only benefit a certain number of students, you limit the political support you could receive by excluding many middle-income families, who are still struggling to support the cost of higher education. , says Bell.

“In these different programs, it’s really about balancing politics, finances and equity,” Bell said. “And a lot of those programs have come under scrutiny because one of those things is out of balance.”

Students walk on the University of Oklahoma campus in March 2015.

There is also more to pay for college than tuition – like housing, food, transportation, and many other costs. The best programs, Bell said, are simple for students to understand and apply, generous in what they cover, and include these wraparound services.

She used the Kalamazoo Promise in Michigan as an example — a program that pays up to 100% of tuition and fees for four years for graduating students from Kalamazoo public schools. While funds cannot be transferred to things like room and board, the program provides access to high school and college level coaches to help students with their transition to college.

Not all programs are created equal

Even in places where free tuition programs are in place, the benefits are not always impactful.

The Urban Institute found that the New York Excelsior Scholarship, announced in 2017, sent 68% of its funds to families with incomes of $70,000 or more, meaning students with the lowest incomes did not receive the funds. Meanwhile, low-income students still face other financial barriers, such as the cost of books, meal plans, transportation, and other categories that fall outside of tuition.

That’s not all: Only about half of students who received the scholarship in the fall of 2018 kept the scholarship the following year – a trend the researchers attributed in part to the amount of paperwork required by the scholarship. , as well as some of the enrollment and credit requirements.

The complexity inherent in the scholarship and financial aid process is actually a huge barrier for students applying to college and their families, said Stephanie Owen, an assistant professor at Colby College who studies the economics of education.

Then New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, left, announced his proposal to make state college tuition free on Jan. 3, 2017, to hundreds of thousands of low- and middle-income residents.  He was joined by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, center, and chairman of the City University of New York board of trustees William C. Thompson.

It can be difficult for some families to know which scholarships and aid programs they are truly eligible for, even before embarking on the arduous application processes that each may require. While there’s often a big difference between the college’s advertised price and what families actually pay, Owen said colleges don’t offer financial aid offers until the student is accepted.

That means students have no idea how much they’ll actually have to pay until much later in the process, after deciding where to apply, Owen said. And if you don’t know how much help you’ll get, that upfront price may discourage applicants, especially those with low incomes.

“It’s a bit strange, isn’t it? Owen said. “Most things we buy, we know what the price is before we commit to it.”

Large four-year universities often already have funds earmarked specifically for low-income students. Stanford University has expanded its financial aid in 2021, ensuring that undergraduate students from families with annual incomes below $75,000 will not pay tuition, room, or board. Ivy League schools like Harvard University and Cornell University have similar programs, as does the University of California.
Other large public schools, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Michigan, also have similar programs – but the UNC-Chapel Hill program is not guaranteed, and Michigan requires students to maintain a GPA of 3.5 or higher.

Even with access to college-specific financial aid, there are still barriers. Navigating the FAFSA process or other paperwork hurdles is not easy, nor is it easy to get into a top school with those kinds of financial resources.

Local, state and federal programs are all necessary for a fair system

Smaller, local and state tuition waiver programs exist – but they may be flawed or temporary, in place for a few years and then gone. Colleges do receive financial aid, but it’s not always possible to waive tuition entirely, and not all colleges have the resources to waive tuition for large groups.

And a universal federal program, despite some effort, seems elusive.

However, none of this means that equitable access to college is completely beyond our reach. Interim steps are being taken in the right direction, Owen said.

She used the College Scorecard as an example, a US Department of Education tool that allows students to see how much people at different income levels pay on average, along with other information such as graduation rates and typical earnings after graduation.

Having this information in a clear and concise manner helps, Owen said. But this has its limits – the average cost is not the exact cost, after all.

The University of Michigan HAIL Scholarship is a way forward for colleges looking to provide affordable higher education.
There are other positives: The FAFSA Simplification Act, which was passed by Congress in 2020, should make the FAFSA process easier for students. The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor HAIL Scholarship provides full tuition and fees to select low-income undergraduate students and notifies students of their scholarship acceptance prior to the admissions process, which limits financial uncertainty.
Expanding the Pell Grant is another effort that many are advocating, especially since universal community college initiatives have failed at the federal level.

“It won’t come from one program,” Bell said of creating a financially equitable universal college system. “It’s going to come from the interaction of federal and state programs that are trying to make college more affordable for all kids. And right now, we’re still not there.”

That doesn’t mean things are stuck where they are now, she said. It just means we’re just getting started.