States forge ahead with tuition-free college

Although federal legislation to advance tuition-free community college has stalled in Congress, so-called “college promise” programs still appear to have momentum at the state and local levels. At least seven tuition-free programs have launched since November 2021, according to College Promise, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that advocates for tuition-free postsecondary education. These add to 33 statewide college promise programs already in existence and have emerged as states, using budget surpluses arising from pandemic relief funds and their own economic recovery, are urgently trying to reach students who stopped out of school during the pandemic due to financial barriers.

While saying that federal support of universal public college would be preferable and “create a sustainable endowment process that could fully fund this for all,” Martha Kanter, former undersecretary of education in the Obama administration and College Promise’s current executive director, tells The Washington Post that “there is a real opportunity to build on what local communities and states are doing” to make postsecondary education part of their economic agenda.

Related: WSJ: 300+ free-college programs and counting

States leading the tuition-free movement

Recently, governors from New Jersey, New Mexico, and Michigan have introduced new programs for tuition-free college, using state revenue and pandemic funds to expand coverage. New Mexico’s college promise program has attracted attention for its structure and scope. To date, many college promise programs have cover fees only for traditional, full-time students who recently graduated high school, or they are set up as “last-dollar” programs that kick in only after all other federal and state grants have been applied. However, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham recently signed legislation extending the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship for one year to nontraditional students, part-time students, and adult learners returning to school for certificates and associate’s and bachelor’s degrees at state universities and tribal colleges. 

Called “one of the most inclusive College Promise programs in the country” by The Washington Post, the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship expansion is funded by federal pandemic-relief dollars and covers up to 35,000 residents. Under the “first-dollar”-style program, Pell grant-eligible students can use state college promise funding to cover tuition, preserving federal dollars to cover other college expenses. According to the state’s acting higher education secretary Stephanie Rodriguez, “New Mexico is making history in setting a national example of how states can break beyond barriers for students everywhere,” the Las Cruces Sun News reports. 

Related: Tailoring college promise programs to the needs of adult learners>

New Mexico is not the only state to apply pandemic funds to a college promise program. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer used federal dollars to create Futures for Frontliners, a scholarship that provides free community college to essential workers. Whitmer said that 100,000 people signed up for the scholarship in 2020. Residents who did not qualify applied to Michigan Reconnect, another scholarship program that covers community college tuition for nontraditional, non-degree holding students ages 25 and older. Although enrollment is still below pre-pandemic levels at Michigan colleges, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center recorded a 19 percent increase in the state’s community college enrollment in 2021, following a 20 percent decrease the year before. Brandy Johnson, president of the Michigan Community College Association, credits the state’s tuition-free programs with the enrollment increase.

In February 2021, the University of Texas (UT) System Board of Regents approved a $300 million endowment covering tuition at seven of the eight UT campuses. The eighth, UT Austin, already has a similar fund. Under the plan, UT colleges can raise income eligibility for free tuition and fees. The Board estimates that the endowment will generate $15 million a year, which would provide each UT campus with at least $1 million for their tuition plans. Nolan Perez, one of the UT regents, says this endowment “is huge for getting kids into our institutions and across the finish lines and connecting learning to employability.”

A year after New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation to make permanent the Community College Opportunity Grant covering college tuition for families earning an annual income of $65,000 or less, Rutgers-New Brunswick says it was able to send financial aid award letters to 3,400 students allowing them to attend the university tuition-free or at greatly reduced cost. The Garden State Guarantee, which Murphy signed in January, provides similar tuition assistance to third and fourth-year students. “I am tremendously proud that Rutgers and the state of New Jersey recognize the transformational change these financial aid programs will have on the lives of thousands of students and their families,” Francine Conway, chancellor provost at Rutgers-New Brunswick, writes in The Star-Ledger.

Skeptics question model’s sustainability

Even with this momentum, there remain significant obstacles. Opponents of tuition-free college say that the costs of subsidizing universal free public college outweigh the benefits. Too many schools have low graduation rates; for instance, less than 40 percent of community college students graduate within six years. However, supporters of universal free tuition at public colleges say that graduation rates would improve with greater financial investment in higher education and more aid for students in need. 

Some skeptics also fear that an overreliance on state revenue, and particularly pandemic relief, could eventually threaten the stability of tuition-free programs. Thomas Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, warns, “When states experience lean budget years, higher education is one of the first things to get cut and that leads to tuition increases.” The federal government must, therefore, play a bigger role in making public education affordable in the long run, Harnish says. “We want to develop a system that provides incentives for states to maintain their funding for higher education and not just rely so much on increases in the federal Pell Grant program.”

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