WSJ: 300+ free-college programs and counting

Widespread concern about college affordability and persistent workforce gaps have accelerated the proliferation of free-college programs, The Wall Street Journal reports. There are now more than 300 so-called “college promise” programs spanning 44 states. According to the free-college advocacy group College Promise Campaign, more than 120 such programs launched between 2015 and 2017.

College promise programs vary in their structure and scope, but typically commit to covering two years of tuition for students who enroll full-time and maintain a certain grade point average. Noting that the programs “have been championed by lawmakers across the political spectrum,” the Journal highlights several free-college programs inspiring similar efforts:

  • The Michigan-based Kalamazoo Promise program has awarded more than $117 million thus far. Between 2005, when the program launched, and 2016, Kalamazoo recorded a 30 percent increase in the number of high-school graduates going on to complete a college degree.
  • Buffalo, N.Y., has seen a 10 percentage point increase in high-school graduation rates since the launch of its free-college program in 2012.
  • College enrollment has increased by 17 percentage points in El Dorado, Ark., since Murphy Oil Corporation donated $50 million to launch a free-tuition program.
  • “We’ve made the associates degree the new minimum that the high-school degree used to be,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, crediting the city’s free-college program with helping boost local high school graduation rates from 54 percent in 2011 to 76 percent in 2018.
  • The Providence Journal, meanwhile, reports that the number of low-income students and students of color enrolling full-time at the Community College of Rhode Island has more than doubled since the state’s free-college program launched in 2017.

Critics, however, say that free-college programs don’t necessarily live up to their potential. Some lament that the models prioritize two-year programs over four-year degrees. Others point out that college promise programs fail to cover living costs and other expenses that can put college out of reach for some families.

Recent reports looked at the “last-dollar” tuition-free college programs implemented by Tennessee and New York, suggesting that their structure may benefit middle-income students more than their low-income peers. Advocates of free college, however, challenged that conclusion, saying that the researchers took a narrow view of equity and overlooked key benefits of free-college efforts.

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