An Updated Equity-Driven Framework for Free College Programs

Free college programs have been around for some time, but they have proliferated in recent years, prompted by rising college costs, mounting student debt, and the United States’ urgent need for a more educated workforce. But while these free college, or “promise” programs have the potential to make a higher education more affordable and accessible for more students, many programs are not doing enough to prioritize the students who struggle the most to pay.

A Promise Worth Keeping: An Updated Equity-Driven Framework for Free College Programs, updates the findings from our 2018 report on free college programs. This time around we reviewed 23 existing statewide policies with our updated framework, which considers whether a program:

  • Covers the full cost of going to college – beyond tuition and fees – for four or more years
  • Helps students from low-income backgrounds defray their living expenses
  • Is accessible to adult, returning and part-time students, as well as all undocumented and incarcerated students
  • Attaches strings that discourage certain student groups from applying
  • Converts to a loan

Top findings in 2020

  • Most programs help students pay for tuition, but not living costs.
  • While all 23 active programs cover tuition at a two-year college, only eight provide four years of tuition and include bachelor’s programs at four-year universities.
  • Fourteen of 23 active free college programs exclude adult and returning students, while others have age or participation restrictions that effectively do the same thing. Just two states have designed programs with adults and returning students in mind.

“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,”

– Tiffany Jones, Ph.D.

  • Performance requirements, like minimum high school GPAs or standardized test scores undercut equity and affordability.
  • Just 12 of 23 existing free college programs provide benefits to all undocumented students, though that should not be taken to mean that 12 states provide access to undocumented students.
  • While 12 of 23 active programs do not have language prohibiting currently and previously incarcerated individuals from participating, many have rigid eligibility requirements that are difficult for justice-impacted students to meet. The remainder have a combination of legislative, programmatic, and practice barriers that exclude justice-impacted students in their state.

The Promise of a Higher Education Should be Open to All – Even Those in Prison

Currently, the United States has the world’s largest prison system with nearly 2.3 million people in jails, prisons, and detention centers. As a nation, the U.S. constitutes only 5% of the global population, but 20% of the world’s prison population. At this moment, people on both sides of the political aisle agree that higher education is a better investment than incarceration, and a “common-sense strategy” to reduce recidivism is coalescing around expanding access to a quality higher education for incarcerated individuals.

With research showing that correctional education programs reduce the rate of recidivism by 28% and are associated with fewer violent incidents in participating prisons, it is essential that states take the following steps to increase access to financial aid and expand postsecondary education in prisons:

  • Remove regulatory, statutory, and practice barriers that keep students from accessing aid
  • Ensure colleges apply admissions and enrollment standards equitably for students who are incarcerated and recognize the unique conditions posed by a prison setting
  • Support access to aid – both federal and state – by investing in college navigators and counselors who can help guide incarcerated students through the financial aid application process

Over the last decade, 44 states have set goals to increase the number of residents graduating from college. But to meet these statewide college attainment goals, many states will need to increase attainment among adults from every walk of life — including incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students — and not just recent high school graduates.

“Business, government, and campus leaders stepped up in a big way to create the Washington College Grant. 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.”

– Michael P. Meotti, executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council

Modeling Equity: The Washington College Grant Program

Out of the 23 free college programs examined in our report, only one meets all of our criteria for an equity-focused program, the Washington College Grant. Also unique among statewide free college programs, the Washington College Grant comes with a guaranteed revenue stream: a small new tax on high-revenue employers who benefit from high-skilled workers. This enables Washington to fund every eligible student, even during economic disruptions, while students in other states face free-college waiting lists when funding is tight.

5 Steps Policymakers Can Take to Ensure Their Free College Programs Advance Equity

Since we issued our 2018 report on free college, the number of free college programs has grown: There are eight more active programs and four more proposed programs. However, free college programs still have a long way to go to make college affordable for all students from low-income backgrounds. Below are five steps policymakers can take to ensure they are using free college policies to advance equity in their states:

  1. Include all students
  2. Go beyond tuition
  3. Make improvements over time
  4. Be transparent
  5. Invest in student success.