Why free college is so elusive — and how we can get closer to establishing it

Even at a local level, ‘free college’ is easier said than done

Though many states have made recent pushes to waive college tuition for certain groups, subsidizing college education isn’t 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, Pell Grants were first created — and now represent the largest federal aid source for students pursuing post-secondary education.
There have been other pushes on the state level, like Georgia’s Hope Scholarship, a merit-based award that launched in 1993 for students who sustain a 3.0 grade point average.

When city or state officials attempt to waive tuition in some way — whether for public four-year universities or two-year community colleges — they’re thinking about avoiding brain drain, said Elizabeth Bell, an assistant professor at Florida State University who researches higher education policy.

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

But actually creating these programs is easier said than done. The issue of college affordability and making college as accessible as possible is one that actually has 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 can be pushback against giving money to families who could afford college without assistance, Bell said. Others worry that colleges could raise costs to capture more funding from the state, since most people wouldn’t be paying the sticker price.

There are also arguments over whether to create first-dollar programs, where funding is given to students before any other aid or award-based funding, or to create last-dollar programs, which fill the gaps that aid and other financial awards don’t cover. The issue with last-dollar programs is most of the money actually goes to higher-income families, who may not receive aid from other areas, Bell said.

Most first-dollar programs actually exist at the local level, she said, since they support fewer students, making those programs easier to finance. On the other hand, a lot of state programs are last-dollar.

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

Politically, it’s complicated. If you’re putting forth a program proposal that’s first-dollar, but only benefits a select number of students, you’re limiting the political support you could receive by excluding many middle-income families, who still struggle with the cost of higher education, Bell said.

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

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

There’s also more to paying for college than just tuition — such as housing, food, transportation and numerous other costs. The best programs, Bell said, are simple for students to understand and apply to, generous in what they cover, and include those 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 students who graduate from Kalamazoo Public Schools. Though the funds cannot be transferred to things like room and board, the program provides access to coaches at both the high school and college level to help students in their transition to college.

Not every program is created equal

Even in places where free tuition programs are enacted, the benefits aren’t always impactful.

The Urban Institute found that New York’s Excelsior Scholarship, announced in 2017, sent 68% of its funds to families with incomes at or above $70,000 — meaning that the lowest income students didn’t receive the funds. Meanwhile, lower-income students still face other financial barriers, like the costs of books, meals plans, transportation and other categories that fall outside of tuition.

That’s not all: Only about half of the students who received the scholarship in fall of 2018 actually kept the scholarship going into the following year — a trend the researchers attributed in part to the amount of paperwork the scholarship requires, as well as some of the enrollment and credit completion criteria.

The complexity inherent in the scholarship and financial aid process is actually a huge barrier to 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 Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, announced his proposal for free tuition at state colleges on Jan. 3, 2017 to hundreds of thousands of low- and middle income residents. He was joined by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, center, and Chairperson of the Board of Trustees of The City University of New York William C. Thompson.

It can be difficult for some families to even find out what scholarships and aid programs they are actually eligible for, before even getting to the arduous application processes each may require. Though there’s often a large distinction between the sticker price of the college and what families actually pay, Owen said colleges don’t give out financial aid offers until after the student is accepted.

That means that students have no idea how much they’ll actually be required to pay until much later in the process, after they’ve decided where to apply, said Owen. And if you don’t know how much help you’ll get, that initial sticker price can discourage applicants, especially low-income ones.

“That’s kind of odd, right?” Owen said. “Most things we buy, we know what the price is before we commit to them.”

Larger four-year universities often already have money set aside specifically for low-income students. Stanford University expanded its financial aid in 2021 — guaranteeing 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, like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Michigan, also have similar programs — but UNC-Chapel Hill’s program isn’t guaranteed, and Michigan’s requires students to maintain a high school GPA of 3.5 or higher.

Even with access to college-specific financial aid, there are still hurdles. Navigating the FAFSA process or other paperwork hurdles isn’t easy, and neither is getting into a top school with these kinds of financial resources.

Local, state and federal programs are all necessary for an equitable system

Smaller, local and state programs for waiving tuition exist — but they can be imperfect or temporary, in place for a few years and then gone. Colleges have financial aid, but eliminating full costs of tuition isn’t always possible, and not every college has the resources to waive tuition for large groups.

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

None of this means that equitable college access is completely out of our reach, though. There are intermediate steps being taken going in the right direction, Owen said.

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

Having that information in a clear and concise way is helpful, Owen said. But it does have its limits — the average cost is not the exact cost, after all.

The University of Michigan's HAIL Scholarship is one path forward for colleges looking to provide affordable higher education.
There are other bright spots: The FAFSA Simplification Act, which passed Congress in 2020, is expected to ease the FAFSA process for students. The HAIL Scholarship at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor provides full tuition and fees for certain low-income undergraduates, and lets students know of their scholarship acceptance before the admissions process, which limits financial uncertainty.
The expansion of the Pell Grant is another effort many are advocating for, particularly as moves for universal community college have failed at the federal level.

“It’s not going to come from one program,” Bell said, of creating a financially equitable universal college system. “It’s going to come from the interaction of the federal and the state programs 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 still at the beginning.