Is the free college movement losing momentum?

Pointing out that at least two states have now said they are—or are considering—cutting back their free college programs, Education Dive recently questioned whether the pandemic will ultimately “stall the free college movement.” 

Specifically, in August, Oregon cut funding for its promise program by $3.6 million, citing “state budget shortfalls caused by recent public health and economic events.” Launched in 2015, the program provides grants for up to 90 tuition credits at any Oregon community college. As a last-dollar program, it covers costs that remain once students have applied all available federal aid and scholarships. Last month, at least 1,000 participating college students who have Expected Family Contributions of $22,000 or more received emails informing them that their Oregon Promise Grant had been revoked.    

Meanwhile, New York—which has a last-dollar program that allows state residents whose families make up to $125,000 to attend any of the state’s public colleges tuition-free—has put current and potential program participants on alert. A message on the New York Excelsior Scholarship website says that, because the pandemic has hurt state revenues and federal assistance has been delayed, “Excelsior Scholarship awards may have to be reduced and/or prioritized for current recipients as provided for under the program.”

Free-tuition programs had been on the upswing 

The 74 reports that, in the U.S., there are currently more than 400 so-called “promise” programs aimed at making college free or less costly for students. They vary widely in size, approach, and funding source. According to The Campaign for Free College Tuition, 16 are state-led free-college programs; several additional states have created comprehensive scholarship offerings.  

A recent report from the Council of Independent Colleges looked at early results from several state-led college promise programs. While New York’s Excelsior program appeared to have “benefitted fewer students than originally predicted,” Oregon’s promise program significantly increased community college enrollment, Inside Higher Ed reports.

Strained budgets could put free-college programs in peril

But “state budgets are obviously decimated by the pandemic,” putting free-college programs and associated enrollment gains at risk, Sandy Baum, a nonresident senior fellow at the Urban Institute, tells Education Dive. “It won’t be surprising if, like lots of other programs, these programs are vulnerable during this crisis.”

It remains unclear whether more states will be forced to dial back existing and proposed programs. A Century Foundation analysis of how free college programs fared during the Great Recession offers an optimistic view, noting that such programs actually saw an increase in per-student funding despite shrinking state financial aid budgets. And Education Dive notes that New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham this summer vetoed some cuts to the state’s free-college program; Washington state, too, has pledged to sustain its free college program, which launched this academic year. 

Ultimately, federal support—and the outcomes of the election in November—will be critical to free-college programs’ survival, says Douglas Harris, a professor of economics at Tulane University and a fellow at the Brookings Institution. Without federal funding, such programs are “going to be shells of their former selves,” Harris told The 74.

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