A report issued this week by a nonpartisan think tank suggests that states considering “free college” policies should avoid unfair cost-containment strategies, communicate with students and families and make bolder investments in higher education.
The Century Foundation also found that the handful of states that have enacted so-called “promise” programs since 2014 have imposed significant eligibility requirements.
Jen Mishory, Senior Fellow, The Century Foundation
Jen Mishory, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, has completed extensive research on issues related to workforce and higher education. Mishory said she is concerned about whether promise programs, already implemented in 16 states, “are serving students who need support the most” and whether those students “are able to benefit from the state programs.”
She recommends states skip merit requirements such as GPA or ACT/SAT cutoffs and include nontraditional and undocumented students
“Programs open only to recent high school graduates or full-time students leave behind students who work, who have caregiving responsibilities and who are more likely to be low-income,” the report states. “Programs should cover the prorated cost of attendance or tuition, depending on the program, and ensure that any bonuses provided to students for enrolling in more credits makes converting to full-time enrollment more feasible for a significant portion of working students.”
The report states that undocumented students have no access to federal financial aid and limited access to in-state tuition or existing state financial aid programs.
“There is a lot of momentum in a variety of states,” Mishory said, referencing 36 states and three U.S. territories with gubernatorial elections in 2018. “I expect this idea will be talked about during gubernatorial campaigns.”
More than a dozen states are expected to consider Promise program proposals this year. Renewed focus at the state level on affordability, coming after years of per-student cuts to higher education budgets, is a welcome change, Mishory said. “But as state legislatures debate the contours of a program for their respective states,” she added, “they should follow a set of guideposts to ensure their proposals do not exclude or underinvest in students who need help the most.”
Promise programs differ from existing state financial aid by providing at least free or debt-free tuition to a significant subset of students who are not chosen based primarily on merit considerations, according to the report.
The states that have promise programs, according to the study, are Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Washington.
The report found that most promise programs offer free tuition at community colleges, but not four-year institutions.
“On one hand, limiting promise programs to community colleges targets aid awards to a population (community college students) that tends to be lower-income and needs the support the most,” according to the report. “The lower number of eligible students, combined with the fact that tuition and fees tend to be far lower at community college than at four-year institutions, also brings down the cost of the programs more substantially than if it covered both two- and four-year institutions. But one study also raises the question as to whether it may also encourage ‘undermatching,’ meaning that some low-income students who may be able to enroll in more selective four-year institutions — where data shows that they may have better outcomes on average — instead choose two-year schools.”
Other aspects of the report focus on merit, income, post-graduation residency, student supports, targeting high-demand fields and tuition. It indicates that promise programs generally do not provide enough funding to allow working students to cover existing financial obligations, drop their work hours and enroll full-time.
“All but one of the 11 newer statewide programs are last-dollar, meaning that they require students to first use Pell dollars and other grant aid toward the cost of tuition and then cover the remaining gap,” Mishory said.
The report recommends that states considering a promise program limit targeted investments, contending that a first-dollar program will do far more to reach students who most need aid.
“Short of that, a policymaker weighing a first- or middle-dollar approach that excludes the wealthiest students against a last-dollar program with no income cutoffs should pursue the former approach,” Mishory advised. “Similarly, a state will do more to improve college affordability by covering a wider range of costs such as tuition, fees, books, supplies and transportation for those who have unmet need, than just covering tuition for everyone.”
“If policymakers do not make budgetary investments necessary for a universal or first-dollar program and must limit who qualifies,” she added, “income caps that exclude the wealthiest students, a debt-free model or at least a middle-dollar comparison are better than limiting access by, for example, GPA or age.”