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If 'Free College' Sounds Too Good To Be True, That's Because It Often Is

LA Johnson

To millions of parents and students, they're magical words: free college.

But is the idea pure fantasy?

More than a dozen states now offer grants, often called scholarships, promising to help qualifying students pay for some or all of their college education. In fact, that word, "promise," shows up again and again in these programs' official names: Nevada Promise, Oklahoma's Promise, Oregon Promise, Tennessee Promise ... you get the idea.

Sometimes referred to as "free college" programs, most are relatively new, sparked by the relentless rise in college costs and by a desire among state leaders to improve college access, especially for low-income students. Hundreds more free college programs have popped up at the local level, too. But a new review of 15 of these statewide programs, conducted by The Education Trust, finds that states vary wildly in how they define both "free" and "college."

"I mean, I get paid to do this," laughs Katie Berger, a senior analyst at the nonprofit advocacy group, "and it was very challenging for me to understand the nuances in a lot of these programs. ... And if it's hard for me to understand, I can't imagine how challenging it is for low-income students and first-generation students to wrap their heads around this."

To help measure and make sense of states' free college efforts, Berger and The Education Trust used eight criteria, with a particular focus on equity. None of the programs managed a perfect score. Only one, in Washington, met seven of the criteria. Berger says that's because every free college program is a complex balance of priorities and costs. "All of these choices represent trade-offs. There is no truly universal, college-is-completely-free-for-everyone-ever [program]."

Here's what The Education Trust was looking for:

  • Covers at least four years of tuition and covers a bachelor's degree at a four-year institution: These first two criteria are close cousins. The idea behind both is that when a state only covers tuition for two years of schooling — or excludes traditional, four-year institutions — it often ends up channeling students into lower-quality programs that have lower graduation rates and offer limited job prospects.
  • Helps low-income students cover living expenses and covers fees in addition to tuition: "[Students] have to eat. They have to have shelter. They have to buy books," says Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at The Education Trust. "If a politician is selling a program saying, 'I'm making college free,' and they're not dealing with any of that stuff except for tuition, that can be really problematic."
  • Includes adults and returning students: More than a third of students currently enrolled in a higher education program are 25 or older. Yet The Education Trust found that just two free college programs, in Hawaii and Tennessee, currently include older or returning students.
  • No college G.P.A requirement above 2.0, or a C-average
  • Allows students to enroll half-time: This is a big one for low-income or older students who want or need to work while they're in school. More than half of current free college programs prohibit this kind of part-time enrollment.
  • Grant does not convert to a loan if criteria isn't met
  • To see these programs side-by-side, we've put together a handy chart at the end of this story. But first, a closer look at two programs that make very different promises.

    In Indiana, an early promise

    While many states are new to free college, Hoosiers have been at it for years. The state's 21st Century Scholars program is nearly three decades old, and is one of the top-rated programs on The Education Trust's list, meeting six of eight criteria.

    21st Century Scholars can attend any participating two- or four-year institution, public or private, and the program covers four years of tuition and fees. Also, students won't receive less help from the state if they get other grants that can be used to cover non-tuition costs. The only knocks against the program, when measured against The Education Trust's rubric, are that it is not available to adult and returning students and participants cannot enroll part-time.

    But what really sets Indiana's program apart is when it kicks in: seventh grade.

    "It's an early promise program," says Teresa Lubbers, Indiana's commissioner for higher education.

    Any seventh- or eighth-grader who qualifies for free or reduced price lunch can apply. In return for promising to pay their way through college, the state asks participants to meet 12 requirements in high school, the toughest of which is maintaining a B-average. Other requirements include visiting a college campus, taking a career interests assessment and filing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

    The program has grown over the years. Lubbers says roughly 20,000 participants are now in college with another 80,000 working their way through middle and high school. Other states may blanch at the sticker price: Last year alone, Lubbers says, the program awarded more than $160 million in financial aid. But Lubbers believes that price will drop with the state's unemployment rate and that there's still bipartisan support for the program.

    "We're about changing the culture of a state that did not need education beyond high school to have a middle-class lifestyle," Lubbers says. "The world has shifted, and we are committed to make sure Hoosiers are not left behind."

    In Oregon, a need-blind promise

    The Oregon Promise program is much newer to the free college scene than Indiana's. Now in its third year, it's also smaller and, in many ways, more restrictive. Oregon Promise does not cover school fees or four-year institutions. It is a two-year grant (meaning it covers a maximum of 90 credits), and it is applicable only at community colleges.

    Not surprisingly, Oregon Promise costs the state far less each year than Indiana's program. Instead of $160 million, Oregon's program costs the state $20-25 million a year, according to Ben Cannon, the executive director of the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

    Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is who benefits. Again, Indiana restricts its free college program to low-income students. Oregon does not.

    This is why, in the first year of Oregon's program, fewer than half of all participants qualified for a federal Pell Grant (a common measure of low-income status). The state does have a separate, larger program — the Oregon Opportunity Grant — that is targeted to low-income students, but it has been badly underfunded. In short, when it comes to the promise of free college, Oregon has chosen to pick up the tab for many students who don't need help.

    This question of who should benefit from a free college program has stirred fierce debate. The problem with need-blind access, says Tiffany Jones at The Education Trust, is that it often results in more money going to students who don't need it than to low-income participants. That's because some programs scale back state aid to students who get additional help from, say, a federal Pell Grant.

    "We just want to be careful," says Jones, "that we aren't buying into the idea [of free college] but in reality spending a lot of money on wealthy students — not necessarily these students who struggle — and then, when the money is running out and 10, 15 years from now we look back, and we're saying 'OK, let's do something for low-income students.'"

    The review also found that the programs with income caps often fared better in enrolling students of color. For example, in Indiana, African-Americans account for roughly 10 percent of the state population but 15 percent of 21st Century Scholars. It's a similar story for Latino students. In the case of Oregon's program, black students are underrepresented, though Latino students are not.

    Oregon official Ben Cannon argues the decision to provide need-blind access may actually drive more low-income students into college.

    "Simplicity in messaging is really, really important for these programs. They are, more than anything, marketing programs," Cannon says. "They succeed because they convince students and their families that college is accessible."

    Need-blind access, Cannon argues, makes it easier for teachers to promote the program in their classrooms and may reduce the stigma some low-income students feel participating in a strictly means-tested aid program.

    But Cannon also acknowledges the risk: Every dollar Oregon spends on more affluent students, is one dollar less it has to spend on vulnerable students.

    "Whether that is a price worth paying," Cannon says, "given the fact we're funding students who don't need the financial help, is, I think, one we need more time and more research to better ascertain."

    No doubt, the many states that haven't yet committed to free college are watching and taking notes.

    (Not seeing the chart? Click here.)

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


    Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.