Equity-Focused “Free College” Movement Picks Up Steam
Several programs improve, one state gets it right, yet most college “promise” programs exclude too many of today’s students, according to new analysis from The Education Trust
WASHINGTON – Before COVID-19 threw a wrench in the gears of the U.S. economy, the equity-focused free college movement was picking up steam in the states. The state of Washington created a gold-standard college promise program in 2019, and states like Tennessee, Maryland, and New Jersey sharpened their equity focus in terms of which students are included and which costs are covered. Yet, in too many states, the free college promise remains a promise unkept. And now, looming budget shortfalls resulting from the pandemic threaten to set back the equity-focused free college movement.
In a new report out today – A Promise Worth Keeping: An Updated Equity-Driven Framework for Free College Programs – The Education Trust revisits a 2018 rating of statewide college promise programs to review several new programs against an equity-focused framework that now also addresses whether promise programs are open to undocumented students and students who are incarcerated.
“It’s clear that more state leaders, across the political spectrum, recognize the importance of an equity-focused free college program to a strong economy,” said Tiffany Jones, Ph.D., senior director of higher education policy at The Education Trust.
“The momentum is exciting, and the new Washington College Grant is a model for other states. Still, I remain concerned that too many states offer a ‘light’ version of free college that’s heavy on rhetoric while excluding the very students who have the greatest financial need and who have the most to gain from higher education,” said Jones.
Top-line findings of A Promise Worth Keeping include the following:
- There are eight more statewide free college programs today than there were three years ago.
- Most programs still are limited to just covering tuition and not fees, books, and living costs.
- Just a third of statewide promise programs provide four years of tuition and include bachelor’s degree programs.
- Only two states have designed statewide free college programs specifically for adult and returning students.
- Half of free college programs exclude undocumented students or students who are incarcerated; these students face higher college costs as they are ineligible for federal aid.
The Washington College Grant, passed into law in 2019 and funded with a tax on employers who benefit from high-skilled workers, is the most equity-focused free college program in the country, according to The Education Trust’s new report. The Washington program is the only one that meets all of Ed Trust’s equity criteria for free college programs.
“Business, government, and campus leaders stepped up in a big way to create the Washington College Grant,” said Michael P. Meotti, the executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, the state’s higher education agency. “This makes our state the senior partner in the state-federal partnership on grant aid to college students of all ages. If other states want to make the same commitment to their economic future as we’ve made to ours here in Washington, we’d be happy to help.”
In other states, too often, free college programs don’t match the free college promise. Most states still don’t have a statewide free college program at all, despite loud calls for college affordability. And now the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic threatens state budgets, including higher education.
Some states, though, are intent on preserving free college programs. New Jersey, for example, continues investing in its Community College Opportunity Grant (CCOG) program, which provides tuition- and fee-free access to postsecondary education for all qualifying students attending any of the state’s community colleges. This New Jersey program is one of only three in the country to meet all of Ed Trust’s student-eligibility tests for an equity-focused free college program.
“A key tenet of New Jersey’s State Plan for Higher Education is ensuring every resident, regardless of life circumstances, has the opportunity to obtain a high-quality, affordable credential that prepares them for life after college,” said Diana Gonzalez, interim secretary of higher education in New Jersey. “At a time when students and families are facing great financial hardship, our fiscal year 2021 budget maintains funding for the CCOG program to ensure students have affordable pathways to postsecondary education.”
A Promise Worth Keeping concludes with five broad recommendations for statewide free college programs:
- Include all students – no matter how long it’s been since high school, whether they’re part-time or full-time, or whether they’re undocumented or incarcerated.
- Go beyond tuition – cover the full cost of college, including fees, learning materials, and living expenses like food and housing, or at least cover tuition and allow students to use other financial aid like Pell Grants for these costs.
- Make improvements over time – state leaders can and should build political support to make free college programs more generous and more equitable.
- Be transparent – about who benefits and who doesn’t, including by race, ethnicity, and income.
- Invest in student success – that means, in part, guaranteeing equitable funding for the colleges serving large percentages of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.
“This report sheds significant light on actions college promise program leaders can take at the local and state level – especially now – to prioritize and achieve equity goals for their students,” said Martha Kanter, CEO of College Promise and U.S. undersecretary of education from 2009 to 2013.
“Covering tuition and fees to keep college affordable is critical but not sufficient. We must increase college persistence and success, especially for students of color, low-income students, and first-generation college-goers. The Education Trust gives us practical steps to pursue in truly democratizing postsecondary education, once and for all,” said Kanter.
The report’s authors also urge the federal government to team up with states to ensure free college promises are kept. The federal role is even more important now, given the tough budget choices many states will have to make because of the economic downturn resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The full report, including a special section on free college for students who are incarcerated, is available at edtrust.org/freecollege.