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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
“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.