How Free College Can Advance Equity In America
By: Katie Berger
This post was originally posted on Forbes
More than ever, a postsecondary education is necessary for a securing job that pays a living wage. However, college affordability remains a key barrier for too many Americans, including those who stand to benefit most from earning a degree. The increasingly inaccurately named “non-traditional” students — including low-income students, working adults, parents, and students of color — face significant unmet financial need, growing debt burdens, and distressingly low graduation and loan repayment rates. Importantly, researchers who study student debt recognize (and have repeatedly demonstrated) that the affordability crisis is concentrated among students of color, low-income students, students who attend for-profit colleges, and those who leave college before completing a degree.
It is in this context that policymakers from across the country and the political spectrum have proposed a wide variety of “free college” and “college promise” programs. As mentioned in Ed Trust’s new report, A Promise Fulfilled: A Framework for Equitable Free College Programs, when designed with equity in mind, these programs have a tremendous potential to transform higher education and to put college degrees within reach of all Americans who wish to pursue one.
The college promise movement is born in part out of view that higher education is a public good, and the adoption of a free college program often represents the first substantial new investment in colleges that suffered deep budget cuts during the great recession. Truly fulfilling the promise of free college, however, will require combining laudable motives, adequate resources, and thoughtful design to address the most significant college affordability barriers faced by today’s students. To do so, policymakers must focus on helping students who struggle with housing and food insecurity, opening doors to institutions that have traditionally been closed to many, and reducing the debt burdens that can plague borrowers throughout adulthood.
Community colleges have long played a vital role in expanding college access for low-income students, students of color, working adults, and others who have been denied the opportunity to pursue postsecondary education and reap the enormous benefits that come with earning a degree. The college promise movement rightfully recognizes that role and enhances access to the two-year sector; however, the college promise movement also includes viable four-year free college programs. Policymakers should maximize choice, providing benefits to students enrolled at high-quality two- and four-year institutions that meet their needs, and ensure that students participating in college promise programs have access to smooth pathways for transferring credits and earning bachelor’s degrees.
Additionally, lawmakers should be careful to avoid provisions that limit the impact of college promise programs on college access and degree attainment. Unfortunately, many of the newly adopted programs are structured as “last dollar,” meaning that they cover the remaining cost of tuition only after all other grant aid has been applied, and are restricted to institutions where the cost of tuition is already relatively low. The current maximum federal Pell Grant — available to students with the greatest financial need — is higher than the average cost of tuition and required fees at public two-year institutions in the U.S ($5,920 vs. $3,156), so last-dollar programs that are restricted to the two-year level generally do little for the lowest income students and instead tend to direct state funds to middle- and upper-income students.
There are a number of other features of recent free college programs that are likely to limit their potential impact. Many programs restrict eligibility to full-time students, recent high school graduates and students earning a certain number of credits or certain GPAs, even as today’s college students are increasingly likely to delay college attendance and balance academic, work, and family obligations. Complicating matters further, not all programs cover fees, leaving students facing unexpected and often substantial costs, and some states are enacting repayment requirements that cause grants to convert into loans when students move or are unable to find work. Such restrictions add unnecessary complexity to the powerfully straightforward message of free college programs and are likely to have a disproportionate impact on the students who already struggle the most to pay. It’s also important that policymakers build in supports, such as counseling and advising, that go beyond affordability and access to help students succeed and earn degrees.
The free college movement presents an important opportunity to address the college affordability crisis, but to move the needle on college degree attainment nationwide, policymakers must focus on the students who are poorly served by today’s colleges and universities. We hope that our latest report will help policymakers refine and enhance free college programs to advance equity in higher education and ensure that all students have access to high-quality, affordable postsecondary options.