April 24, 2019
By Emma Kerr
When Kenyatta Lovett’s father wanted to attend college, he took a job laying bricks to pay for school. But relying on just a summer or part-time job to pay for college today is next to impossible, says Lovett, executive director of Complete Tennessee, a nonprofit advocating for increasing postsecondary access and completion in Tennessee, which was the first state in the country to make community college free statewide.
"If anyone today wanted to go out and lay bricks and even pay for books that semester, it's probably not going to happen. And so the realities of what college cost for my father look drastically different than today," Lovett said during a panel discussion on free college in March.
Since the launch of Tennessee Promise in 2015, other states and cities have worked to replicate aspects of the program. Colleges have also announced their own tuition-free programs, likethe University of Tennessee's announcement last month to cover the tuition and fees for students with a household income of less than $50,000 a year beginning in fall 2020.
Today, around 20 states offer free college programs in the U.S., and those options continue to grow as more states and institutions announce similar opportunities. These programs may increasingly become among students' first choices as they seek to get around the skyrocketing cost of college.
Already a point of division and discussion among members of the Democratic Party vying for the 2020 presidential nomination, free college could expand even further with federal funding and more participating colleges in the coming years. Beyond existing statewide College Promise programs, which cover tuition and fees leading to a community college degree or occupational certificate, there is movement in 26 state legislatures to establish or expand such a program, according to the nonpartisan, national College Promise Campaign.
But free college, a phrase that educational experts say is often used to convey a simple message, encompasses many varied programs.
"'Free college' means 'paid for' in our College Promise Campaign," Rosye Cloud, vice president of strategy and innovation for the Campaign, wrote in an email. "It refers to programs that make college tuition and fees free for students," which also aim to offer student support resources, she says.
"These programs generally target recent high school graduates, but every program is designed differently and Promise programs often benefit a variety of populations beyond traditional students including adult learners, foster care youth, military connected students, the formerly incarcerated, and/or DREAMERs," Cloud says. Young immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents as children are commonly referred to as "Dreamers," after never-passed proposals in Congress to provide pathways to permanent residency called the DREAM Act.
Ben Miller, vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, which describes itself as a nonpartisan policy institute, says the existing programs come in three primary forms: free tuition at community college; free tuition programs that include free community college as well as free public four-year college for families making less than a set income; and debt-free college programs, in which families pay a reasonable share of their income for college.
Some programs offer first-dollar money, meaning the free college program's funds are the first money a student receives before any federal or state aid is given. But most, Lovett says, are last-dollar, meaning these programs provide money after all other funding options have been exhausted.
This distinction can determine who benefits most, Miller says.
"The idea of first-dollar is essentially to make college free. It is the first money that comes in the door," Miller says. "In that situation, your lower-income people are best off, because you get this other money to cover tuition. And then they can use the financial aid they would otherwise receive to cover their living expenses, which can help a lot because one of the things we've seen is that living expenses can be the thing that knocks a lot of people out of attending college."
But with last-dollar programs, he says, "you take whatever financial aid money you have already and then fill in the difference between that money and what it costs to have a free education. So that setup tends to actually be better for higher-income people because for a low-income person, you can basically cover most if not all of their costs through the Pell Grant or things of that nature. So the people who are more likely to get additional money are the people who would not otherwise get financial aid."
But Lovett says some state programs also offer resources and support to low-income students, even if the last-dollar funds aren't needed.
Students and families should be prepared to factor in living expenses and other educational costs even if they take part in a free college program. Many only cover tuition and, in some cases, fees. This can be a significant barrier to low-income students, Lovett says.
The University of Virginia announced in October 2018, for example, that it would provide free tuition for in-state students whose families earn less than $80,000 a year and meet other requirements.
This program does not cover additional expenses, like housing and meals, which can total an estimated $16,368 for in-state students in the 2019-2020 school year, according to the university's website. UVA does, however, offer free room and board for students whose families earn less than $30,000 a year and meet asset requirements, in addition to free tuition.
Programs vary across institutions, states and cities, so students should review the parameters of the specific options applicable to them, experts say. For programs like the one in Tennessee, Lovett says students should decide what they want to study and the degree they hope to earn before assessing whether their state's program will help them.
"If it's an associate degree or something that is two years or less of college, obviously this is a program I would encourage the student and the family to be a part of," he says.
"If it deals with something going into a four-year space or bachelor's degree, if the student is unsure of what they truly want to major in or if the family feels their finances on the non- tuition cost side may not be sufficient for that student to have an enjoyable experience or making sure that family doesn't have to go through extra strain to complete that degree, being able to accomplish both an associate's degree and knocking out two years of college without having to cover tuition is a smart and efficient way to do so," Lovett says.
Students who are determined to attend a four-year college but are not academically prepared may also benefit from free college, he adds. "They can go get that base-level coursework, get some confidence in higher ed, get some of the supports they need in the first and second year of their coursework, to then move on to that four-year degree," Lovett says.
While there is increasing interest in new free college programs, students should not forget about the options that have long existed to offer fully or partially free college, says Christopher Chapman, president and CEO of AccessLex Institute, a nonprofit organization aiming to make law school more affordable and accessible to students.
The federal Pell Grant, for example, offers about $6,000 to students each award year, which can cover much or all of a student's expenses at some two-year colleges, says Chapman, who previously worked as president and CEO of a nonprofit student loan provider and vice president of a student loan lender.
Prospective students should also be aware that the type of institution they plan to attend determines how impactful federal and state financial aid will be and how much aid an institution can offer its students, Chapman says.
"One of the challenges of talking about free college is we talk about it as if every school in the country, of the five to six thousand of them, are the same," he says. "The NYUs, the Ivy League schools operate on a completely different model than the vast majority of the rest of the schools in the country. They have endowments that start with a number and then have a 'b' as in billion and not million in them. They have the financial flexibility to embrace substantial need-based funding for their students."
Free college is largely an aspirational idea, Chapman says, but he sees an acute need for programs that can reach all students at various levels of education.
Another challenge, Chapman says, is that free college programs are subject to the "ebbs and flows" of politicians and taxpayers. It's become part of the central political conversation today, he says, offering hope to those seeking new ways to pay for college in the future.
"The amount of student debt is really starting to be impactful for a larger part of the population and the younger part of the population who are getting into the workforce and being burdened with a level of debt that no other generation has understood or been able to withstand," Chapman says. "Couple that with the ability that we have in the world today to voice our views of discomfort on that loudly. It's really generated some interest at the political level. Once you do that, you make it part of the conversation."