How “Free College” Can Support #RealCollege Students
By Michelle Miller-Adams, W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research and Grand Valley State University
President Joe Biden took office committed to a range of progressive policies affecting college students. These policies include a plan for tuition-free community college for all; free tuition at public four-year colleges and universities for families earning less than $125,000 a year; tuition coverage for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs); a doubling of Pell grants; and a commitment to invest in evidence-based strategies to boost degree and credential attainment.
Which of these promises will become policy — and when — depends mightily on decisions about where to invest political capital in light of narrow Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. The components of the Biden-Harris higher education platform that connect to COVID-19 recovery and that will have the greatest impact on racial and economic equity are getting attention first. An increase in Pell grants, new resources for HBCUs and MSIs, and a tuition-free community college initiative geared toward economic recovery are thus likely to be first up — and have the added value of potentially drawing bipartisan support.
As the Biden-Harris Administration and congressional leaders move forward with their free-college plans, they should draw on lessons learned from more than a decade of tuition-free college experimentation at the local and state level.
In my new book, The Path to Free College: In Pursuit of Equity, Access, and Prosperity, I trace the evolution of the free-college movement from the announcement of the Kalamazoo Promise in 2005, through the creation of close to 200 community- and institution-based free-college programs and more than a dozen statewide free-college programs. I also examine national precursors to free college, from President Barack Obama’s American Graduation Initiative of 2009 and America’s College Promise proposal of 2015 to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2017 College for All legislation. Throughout, I disentangle three motivations for free college — promoting college affordability, enhancing racial and economic equity in college-going and completion, and strengthening the workforce. While making a general argument in favor of the public benefits of investing in affordable higher education, I also show how the design of free-college programs needs to be more tightly connected to these stakeholder goals.
The Biden-Harris administration is interested in free college for all three reasons mentioned above — access, equity, and workforce readiness — but responding to the COVID-19 crisis and addressing racial and economic injustice are its top priorities. Tuition-free college helps promote equity by lowering financial and informational barriers to post-secondary education and generating resources and systems change that help first-generation and low-income students navigate their way to and through college. When it comes to employability and economic recovery, tuition-free community college (which also covers many short-term certifications) can generate quick returns in the form of degrees and credentials to allow people to find new and better jobs; it can also facilitate retraining for new opportunities, as the just-announced Michigan Reconnect program for adults seeks to do.
Research is clear on what a free-college program that promotes both equity and workforce development should look like. In short, it should be simple in structure, easy to access, and universal (available to all, rather than targeted by income or academic merit). The most effective programs also will provide new resources to students and include provisions for student support and navigation.
Simple to explain, easy to access. Free-college programs are intended not just to benefit individual students but also to transform the systems in which those students learn — from K-12 school districts to post-secondary institutions to community supports for education. In order to achieve these transformational effects, free-college programs must be widely used, and for that to occur they must be easy to explain and access. A free-college Promise that comes with pages of fine print or a complex application system will have less of an impact — on both individuals and systems — than one that is simpler and more easily understood. The application for the Kalamazoo Promise is only a page long, meaning that students who otherwise might be deterred by a cumbersome application process can easily participate. In Tennessee, consistent public messaging about the Tennessee Promise and the embedding of the FAFSA application process as one step along the Tennessee Promise pathway has meant that 90 percent of seniors at public high schools begin the application process for the Tennessee Promise whether they eventually use it or not. A simple message about college affordability, delivered early and often through multiple channels, can bring many people onto a higher ed path and it has the ancillary benefit of increasing Pell grant uptake (Tennessee now leads the states in FAFSA filing rates).
Universal. There is a longstanding debate in the policy world over whether social benefits should be targeted toward those who need them most or made universally available. There are clear tradeoffs between the two approaches: universal programs are easier to administer, more likely to reach all segments of the eligible population and less like to carry the stigma of policies directed toward the poor. Targeted programs, on the other hand, are usually considered more efficient in that they distribute scarce resources to a population that needs or deserves them the most. In the free-college world, the advantages of universality are powerful — universal free-college programs are easier to explain and administer and have stronger impacts than more narrowly targeted programs. Fortunately, there are ways to effectively direct resources to those who need them without creating administrative complexity, exclusion, or stigma. For example, a universal scholarship program in a high-poverty school district is going to naturally serve mostly low-income students because of the makeup of the school district. A scholarship program that can be used only for two-year degrees will similarly have limited impact on higher-income individuals, since they rarely attend the institutions granting these degrees. It is also possible to add elements of targeting within universal programs to better support students who need extra help — in Kalamazoo, for example, almost every student graduating from high school is eligible, but those who attend the local community college automatically receive coaching services to help support their success.
New resources. In a perfect world, free college would be provided on a first-dollar basis — that is, before other forms of financial aid, allowing lower-income students to retain use of their federal financial aid to help cover living expenses (these are often the biggest barrier to college attendance). In the real world, almost all free-college programs are last-dollar, requiring students to use their Pell grants before a Promise scholarship is applied to fill any gaps. (Kalamazoo and a few other community-based Promise programs are exceptions, awarding scholarships on a first-dollar basis.) A simple, clear message of college affordability benefits low-income students even if scholarships are last dollar, but it is unrealistic to expect dramatic changes in college-going behavior without offering new financial resources. One of the best aspects of the America’s College Promise proposal was that it would have provided tuition-free community college while allowing eligible students to retain use of their Pell grants. There is every indication that the Biden-Harris administration’s free-college plans call for the same, and it is critical to preserve this idea in the final legislation. Substituting a student’s Pell grants for a free-college Promise — a common cost-saving measure in state Promise programs — will limit the number of students who are able to participate in the program.
Student support. If a free-college program is to lead to degree or credential completion and thus represent a positive return on investment for recipients and taxpayers first-generation and low-income students need to have access to additional supports. Opening the door to college through better affordability may lead students to enter, but those who lack knowledge of what the college experience entails may struggle once there. Help is needed at various stages. In Tennessee, a large-scale mentorship program organized by tnAchieves helps high-school seniors determine their college-going path. Navigation resources are also available to adult learners through Tennessee Reconnect, helping to ensure that a “right fit” degree or credential program is chosen. The Detroit Promise Path offers high-touch coaching and small monetary incentives to low-income students attending two-year colleges, leading to higher rates of persistence and completion. The Biden plan appears to recognize the value of such efforts, committing to “support community colleges implementing evidence-based practices and innovative solutions to increase their students’ retention and completion of credentials.”
The free-college program most likely to be enacted quickly is one that addresses employer concerns about a skilled workforce while speeding economic recovery from COVID-19. Fortunately (as explained in my book), the same design features that serve these goals also enhance the equity impacts of a free-college program. While the more robust four-year free-college plan embraced by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party should not be abandoned, in the current political climate the administration’s first move should be toward a universal, free community college program. If such a strategy is pursued, those of us who have been engaged in the local and state-level Promise movements for many years stand ready to share what we have learned.
One venue for learning is PromiseNet, an annual convening of stakeholders in free-college programs, that will hold its 11th meeting on November 8–9, 2021, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. (Virtual attendance is also likely to be an option.) In October 2016, a PromiseNet meeting held in Washington, DC, was followed by a White House conference on community colleges and a luncheon at the Vice President’s residence where attendees heard from and shook hands with Vice President Joe and Dr. Jill Biden, a community college English professor. A few short weeks later, Donald Trump was elected president and national progress toward free college came to a halt — although rapid innovation continued at the state and local levels. Four years and some months later, that vice president is in the White House and free college is a part of his administration’s plan to rebuild the economy and promote racial and economic justice. It’s not too soon to start.
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