Why free college is so elusive – and how we can get closer to its establishment

By Leah Asmelash, CNN

The idea of ​​waiving college tuition is falling out of fashion.

Last year, President Joe Biden’s plan to make community college tuition free was cut of the Build Back Better plan, once again placing the concept of a nationwide tuition-free college program just out of reach.

Prior to this effort, former President Barack Obama tried (and failed) to give up the first two years nationwide community college. After that, former Democratic presidential candidates Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders both had platforms advocating for tuition free college nationally at their respective races.

Efforts to waive tuition have had greater success at the state level. Notably, New Mexico lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year that would waive tuition for any student attending public schools or state tribal colleges – joining a growing list of tuition-free state programs.

As the country continues to struggle with student debt crisishere’s why a free college system continues to be so elusive and how it can still be achievable.

Even at the local level, “free college” is easier said than done

Although many states have recently made efforts to waive tuition for certain groups, subsidizing college education is nothing 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 at the National Archives.

About 20 years later, in 1965, Pell Grants were first created – and now represent the largest source of federal aid for students pursuing post-secondary studies.

There have been other pushes at the state level, such as Georgia’s Hope Scholarshipa merit-based award that was launched in 1993 for students who maintain a 3.0 grade point average.

When city or state officials attempt to scrap tuition in one way or another — whether for four-year public universities or two-year community colleges — they consider avoid brain drain, said Elizabeth Bell, an assistant professor at Florida State University who does graduate research. Education policy.

The goal, ultimately, is to preserve educational attainment and thus improve the economy, she says. This is why programs like New York Excelsior Scholarshiprequire those who participate to remain in the state after graduation.

But creating these programs is easier said than done. The issue of college affordability and making colleges as accessible as possible is one that actually enjoys 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 may be reluctance to give money to families who could afford college. unaided, Bell said. Others worry that colleges will raise costs to capture more state funds because most people would not pay the advertised price.

There are also arguments about whether to create first-dollar programs, where funding is given to students before any other scholarship-based aid or funding, or whether to create last-dollar programs, which fill in the gaps that help and others financial rewards do not cover. The problem with last-dollar programs is that most of the money actually goes to high-income families, who may not get help from other areas, Bell said.

Most first-dollar programs actually exist locally, she said, because they support fewer students, making such programs easier to fund. On the other hand, many state programs are bottom dollar.

An exception to this rule is oklahoma’s promise, a first-dollar state program that takes a more targeted approach. The scholarship primarily provides assistance to families earning less than $60,000 per year, and students who apply must also meet certain merit requirements.

Politically, it’s complicated. If you present a first-dollar program proposal, but only benefit a certain number of students, you limit the political support you could receive by excluding many middle-income families, who are still struggling to support the cost of higher education. , says Bell.

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

There is also more to paying for college than just tuition – like housing, food, transportation, and many other costs. The best programs, Bell said, are simple for students to understand and apply, generous in what they cover, and include these wraparound services.

She used Michigan’s Kalamazoo Promise as an example — a program that pays up to 100% of tuition and fees for four years for graduating students from Kalamazoo public schools. While funds cannot be transferred to things like room and board, the program provides access to high school and college level coaches to help students with their transition to college.

Not all programs are created equal

Even in places where free tuition programs are in place, the benefits are not always impactful.

The The Urban Institute found that The New York Excelsior Scholarship, announced in 2017, sent 68% of its funds to families with incomes of $70,000 or more, meaning students with the lowest incomes did not receive the funds. Meanwhile, low-income students still face other financial barriers, such as the cost of books, meal plans, transportation, and other categories that fall outside of tuition.

That’s not all: Only about half of students who received the scholarship in fall 2018 actually kept the scholarship the following year — a trend the researchers attributed in part to the amount of paperwork required by the scholarship, as well as some of the criteria for registration and obtaining credits.

The complexity inherent in the scholarship and financial aid process is actually a huge barrier for students applying to college and their families, said Stephanie Owen, an assistant professor at Colby College who studies the economics of education.

It can be difficult for some families to know which scholarships and aid programs they are truly eligible for, even before embarking on the arduous application processes that each may require. While there’s often a big difference between the college’s advertised price and what families actually pay, Owen said colleges don’t offer financial aid offers until the student is accepted.

That means students have no idea how much they’ll actually have to pay until much later in the process, after deciding where to apply, Owen said. And if you don’t know how much help you’ll get, that upfront price may discourage applicants, especially those with low incomes.

“It’s a bit strange, isn’t it? Owen said. “Most things we buy, we know what the price is before we commit to it.”

Large four-year universities often already have funds earmarked specifically for low-income students. Stanford University has expanded its financial aid in 2021 – ensuring that undergraduate students from families with annual incomes less than $75,000 will not pay tuition, room or board. Ivy League schools like Harvard University and Cornell University have similar programs, just like the University of California.

Other large public schools, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Michigan, also have similar programs – but the UNC-Chapel Hill program is not guaranteedand Michigan requires students to maintain a high school GPA of 3.5 or more.

Even with access to college-specific financial aid, there are still barriers. Navigating the FAFSA process or other paperwork hurdles is not easy, nor is it easy to get into a top school with those kinds of financial resources.

Local, state and federal programs are all necessary for a fair system

Smaller, local and state tuition waiver programs exist – but they may be imperfect or temporary, in place for a few years then left. Colleges do receive financial aid, but it’s not always possible to waive tuition entirely, and not all colleges have the resources to waive tuition for large groups.

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

However, none of this means that equitable access to college is completely beyond our reach. Interim steps are being taken in the right direction, Owen said.

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

Having this information in a clear and concise manner helps, Owen said. But it has its limitations – the average cost is not the exact cost after all.

There are other positive points: the FAFSA Simplification Act, which passed Congress in 2020, should make the FAFSA process easier for students. The HAIL Scholarship at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor offers full tuition and fees to select low-income undergraduate students and notifies students of their scholarship acceptance prior to the admissions process, which limits financial uncertainty.

The the expansion of the Pell Grant is another effort that many advocate, especially since moves toward a universal community college have failed at the federal level.

“It won’t come from one program,” Bell said of creating a financially equitable, universal college system. “It’s going to come from the interaction of federal and state programs that try to make college more affordable for all kids. And for the moment, we are still not there.

That doesn’t mean things are stuck where they are now, she said. It just means we’re just getting started.

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