Two Rules For State Legislators Debating Free College

Two Rules For State Legislators Debating Free College

This post was previously published on Forbes.com.

One of the fastest-moving higher education debates in state legislatures centers around whether to create a “free college” program. Six states have run free, or “Promise,” programs for over a decade, but the Obama administration’s focus on free community college and the launch of the Tennessee Promise in 2014 spurred another nine states to pursue a program. After years of declines in the percentage of state budgets going to higher education, it’s exciting to see state policymakers talking about tackling rising college costs.

Promise programs guarantee enough aid to ensure that a student can attend tuition-free, and sometimes cover additional costs associated with going to school, like books or rent. Some programs only provide those awards if students would otherwise have had to take on debt to pay those costs (debt-free programs). In contrast, traditional state aid programs provide support based on financial need, merit, or both, but do not necessarily link award levels to set costs or a debt-free goal, and the level of support frequently rises and falls according to annual state appropriations.

Policymakers generally pursue statewide Promise programs to reduce college costs and student debt, and to offer an easy-to-understand program that can also increase enrollment, getting the message out that college is accessible. That clear message, combined with the fact that they might reach more people, means that programs have the potential to garner wider public support.

Six states have run free, or “Promise,” programs for over a decade, but the Obama administration’s focus on free community college and the launch of the Tennessee Promise in 2014 spurred another nine states to pursue a program.
Six states have run free, or “Promise,” programs for over a decade, but the Obama administration’s focus on free community college and the launch of the Tennessee Promise in 2014 spurred another nine states to pursue a program.

In practice, it’s not always so simple. When policymakers do not make the sizable investments needed for a more universal benefit, they turn to extensive eligibility requirements to bring down program costs or target state dollars to certain populations of students. The same challenges face local Promise policymakers.

As a result, programs vary significantly. Some cover four-year colleges and universities, but the majority focus on community colleges. Most states only make tuition free, though some cover additional costs of attending college. Four states include only certain areas of study (often STEM or other high-demand fields), and still others have added complicated requirements that convert the grant to a loan if a student leaves the state soon after graduating. Half of programs have minimum GPA and ACT/SAT requirements, despite research showing that merit aid can have inequitable racial and socioeconomic impacts.

Other requirements center around enrollment intensity, age, and how students can use the dollars. Most programs require students to attend full-time and restrict eligibility to recent high school graduates, cutting off many students who need aid, given that part-time students are more likely to be financially independent, often with kids of their own. And most new programs are “last-dollar,” requiring students to first use other grant aid (such as a Pell grant) toward the cost of tuition, after which the Promise only covers remaining tuition costs. (In contrast, a “first-dollar” model allows low-income students to first use Promise dollars for tuition costs so they can then use other remaining grant aid to cover books, housing, and other costs that students must finance.)

As Promise momentum continues during this year’s state legislative sessions, policy makers should follow two guideposts.

First, if a state makes limited investments, it should not ration dollars by cutting off students who could benefit the most. If excluding the wealthiest students allows legislators to include part-time students, cover costs beyond tuition for students who would otherwise have to take on debt (a debt-free model that Hawaii uses), or offer a first-dollar program, that’s a smarter investment: living costs are likely to pose a bigger barrier to college access for low-income students than paying for tuition costs might pose for wealthy students. The New Jersey and Connecticut proposals take this approach, as does Oregonand most older programs. And certainly, capping the income levels makes far more sense than limiting access by GPA or age, or cutting off access for undocumented students, all of which create inequitable barriers.

Second, states shouldn’t add unnecessary requirements—such as post-graduation residency requirements—that complicate the message. One of the greatest attributes of these programs is simplicity. Instead of focusing resources on complicating the process, states should invest their energies in a serious public outreach campaign around a clear message.

Many Promise programs have brought welcome attention and resources to higher education. But states (and the federal government) have not yet put in the dollars needed to move toward a more universal benefit that covers the range of costs that create barriers for low and middle-income students; in the meantime, legislators should design Promises that reach students who need the most help.

For a more in-depth analysis of the sixteen state Promise programs, read the Future of Statewide College Promise Programs here.  And find out more about College Promise movement at collegepromise.org/start.

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