“Free College:” Here to Stay?

“Free College:” Here to Stay?

By Jen Mishory, Century Foundation

Free college, or “Promise” programs—a model of student aid that covers at least full tuition costs for a subset of a given state’s residents—have received a significant boost in the past few years. A central question has been whether the model benefits from more consistent political support over time as compared to other forms of financial aid or other higher education spending. So how have Promise programs fared in retaining political support over time, and what can we learn from past experience?

Nineteen states structure at least one statewide student aid program as a Promise program; among other arguments as to their merits, proponents of Promise programs make the case that both “universal” and “free” are transformative design features when it comes to fiscal sustainability: with more beneficiaries, a clear message, and—at times—more middle class and upper-income participation, this form of financial aid is more likely to sustain political support over time. Observers often point to large-scale social programs as supporting evidence, but rarely look to existing higher education policies. Yet several states have run free college programs for many years prior to the recent upsurge in Promise program popularity, and the level of their resiliency during economic downturns can provide important lessons for overall aid sustainability and future financial aid design.

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