Will shaky state finances shift focus away from tuition-free college?

It’s still too early to know exactly how the COVID-19 pandemic will shape state finances, but experts are predicting that many state leaders will need to shift their focus away from free-college aspirations and instead work on minimizing higher ed budget cuts and tuition hikes.

Free-tuition plans have picked up steam recently, but they largely require state investment. For instance, a plan put forth by Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, would make public colleges and universities free for families earning less than $125,000 annually, with states shouldering one-third of the cost—around $300 billion across 10 years.

‘In doubt for the foreseeable future’

“States are reeling financially” as businesses shutter, unemployment skyrockets, and coronavirus taxes the health care system, Inside Higher Ed reports. Many states are barred by law from running budget deficits, and those that must make cuts often target higher education, assuming that colleges and universities can increase tuition to help cover the gap.

But, even at institutions that promise to meet students’ full financial need, tuition hikes present access barriers for lower-income students, many of whom may not be aware that they would receive extensive financial aid. According to Education Dive, a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows the power of sticker shock, as low-income students applied less often to public flagship universities after they hiked their tuition prices, even if they have a meet-full-need guarantee.

“The first priority for both the federal government and states has to be addressing steep budget cuts and preventing large tuition hikes,” said James Kvaal, president of the Institute for College Access & Success, adding that it “puts the free college plans in doubt for the foreseeable future.”

Could the federal government take the lead on free college?

Some observers are hoping federal legislators will help keep free-tuition plans in sight. While saying that free-college plans “need to be put aside for now,” Morley Winograd, president of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, suggests that Congress could pass additional stimulus packages that include funds for states whose economic recovery plans include eliminating tuition.

Other experts have suggested that the federal government could initially cover costs associated with free college, shifting more of the cost to states once the economy improves. Noting that Congress increased spending on Pell Grants during the last recession, Antoinette Flores, director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, says she “could totally see policy makers consider free college.”

Topics in this story

Next Up

Coronavirus crisis further complicating life for adult learners and student parents

Adult learners and student parents were already balancing competing priorities before COVID-19, but the pandemic has added even more demands to the mix.