Reports: Free College Programs Don’t Benefit Low-Income Students

Source: Ashley A. Smith, Inside Higher Ed, September 6, 2018

Two nonpartisan research groups are urging policy makers to examine the details of tuition-free programs and make them more financially helpful for low-income students.

The State of Free College: Tennessee Promise and New York’s Excelsior Scholarship
Authors: Alain Poutre and Mamie Voight, Institute for Higher Education Policy, September 2018

From the summary:
As college costs steadily rise, students face unprecedented financial barriers as they pursue higher education. Many federal, state, and institutional policymakers tout free-college programs as solutions to addressing college affordability challenges. But IHEP analysis of two state free-college programs, Tennessee Promise and New York’s Excelsior Scholarship, show that to help low-income students afford college, free-college programs must be designed with equity at their core.

The State of Free College: Tennessee Promise and New York’s Excelsior Scholarship finds that neither Tennessee Promise nor the Excelsior Scholarship allocate scarce state funding to the students with the greatest need. To evaluate if these programs have improved college affordability, IHEP examined the net prices at public colleges in both states before and after the implementation of the free-college programs. The analyses assessed affordability for three student profiles with different financial means and different personal and household characteristics. The research found that both programs do little to remove affordability barriers for low-income students, and instead allocate limited funding to middle- and, in the case of Tennessee, high-income students.

A Promise Fulfilled: A Framework for Equitable Free College Programs
Source: Tiffany Jones and Katie Berger, The Education Trust, September 6, 2018

From the summary:
Each fall, millions of college students across the country start classes in hopes of earning their degree. However, the weight of steep tuition bills, rent, groceries, books, and other costs looming over their heads can often cut that dream short. The latest popular solution to help more students afford a degree, which is supported by policymakers and advocates alike, is “free college.”

But while “free college” sounds good at first, we need to ask, “Does this benefit students from low-income families who need it the most?” Unfortunately, right now the answer is “No. Not unless they are designed around equity.”