How well do free-college programs help low-income students?

Two new reports suggest that tuition-free college programs fail to meet the needs of low-income students, but advocates of free-college policies challenge that conclusion.

One of the reports, published by the Institute of Higher Education Policy (IHEP), looked at the New York Excelsior Scholarship and Tennessee Promise programs, “last-dollar programs” that cover only the tuition that remains after other forms of federal and state aid have been applied. As explained by Inside Higher Ed, those sources of aid already cover tuition for the lowest-income students, and because the New York and Tennessee programs focus only on tuition need, low-income students receive little-to-no extra funding, even as they continue to struggle with housing, textbook, transportation, food, and other costs.

For example, 43.6 percent of Tennessee Promise students, 98 percent of whom qualified for Pell grants, received no funding from the program. Some students with higher incomes did benefit, although the report notes that New York’s program has an income cap that excludes high-income students.

Meanwhile, a second report, from The Education Trust, reviewed 15 existing and 16 proposed free college programs using “an eight-part equity rubric” and concludes that “free college is not inherently equitable.” The report encourages voters, families, and policy makers to advocate for statewide programs that actually make college more affordable for low-income families and students of color.

Critics point to broader benefits of free-college programs

Several stakeholders challenged both reports’ findings, saying they take a narrow view of equity and overlook key benefits of free-college efforts. Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, pointed out that IHEP’s analysis does not account for increased college enrollment, noting that many low-income students “would not have even considered going to college if not for the existence of the Promise program.”

Don Kaplan, deputy communications director in the New York governor’s office, similarly pushed back, saying “the bottom line is that New York is expanding college access and making it affordable for thousands of students who otherwise would be denied this life-changing opportunity to reach their full potential.”

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher-education policy and sociology at Temple University, and Michelle Miller-Adams, a professor of political science at Grand Valley State University, also voiced their disagreement, saying the reports rely on a “narrow definition of equity, reflecting a traditional approach to assessing the impact of financial aid and a belief that money is well spent only if it goes solely to the lowest-income people.” Free college programs, they assert, encourage college enrollment, help compensate for the flaws of the FAFSA, and reduce the amount of debt incurred by middle-class students. Such programs also “inject elements of a college-going culture” into primary and secondary education and reinforce the importance of public higher education.

“It is unproductive and unhelpful to [low-income] students to stunt the progress of [the free college] movement,” Goldrick-Rab and Miller-Adams conclude, adding that “it is also dangerous to argue against the very real needs of a middle class dominated by asset-limited, income-constrained families.”

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