The promise of free college (and its potential pitfalls)

Source: Douglas Harris, Raquel Farmer-Hinton, Debbie Kim, John B. Diamond, Tangela Blakely Reavis, Kelly Krupa Rifelj, Hilary Lustick, and Bradley R. Carl, Brookings Institution, September 2018

From the summary:
….This study examines one of the first randomized control trials of a program similar to many free college and promise scholarship proposals. The Degree Project was launched in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) in 2011. Students in 18 randomly selected high schools were promised up to $12,000 to pay for college, at essentially any in-state institution. These funds were sufficient to cover all tuition and fees at the local two-year college—making it a form of free or debt-free college. The funds could also be used to attend four-year colleges, covering more than one year of tuition, and fees. To receive the funds, students had to graduate on time from an MPS high school with at least a 2.5 cumulative GPA and a 90 percent class attendance rate, and fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The Degree Project had some impact on students’ motivation, college expectations, and steps toward college, such as applying to more colleges and FAFSA completion. However, it had no effect on the performance measures and no effect on whether students went directly on to college. The most recent evidence does suggest that the scholarship may have slightly increased persistence and graduation in two-year colleges, though not in four-year colleges. We are continuing to track these effects; however, it seems clear at this point that many of the potential benefits, during and just after high school, did not emerge.

Through additional quantitative and qualitative evidence, we identify three related reasons why the effects were not more substantial: (a) the performance requirements greatly reduced the number of students who could plausibly receive the funds; (b) the performance requirements, combined with the temporary, small-scale design, meant that the program did not have the catalyzing effect on high schools that otherwise similar programs have seen; and (c) the context in Milwaukee—particularly, the very low level of academic performance and lack of counselor resources— may have been particularly ill-suited to make a performance-based aid program work well.

In other words, this version of free college did not live up its potential in part because of the way it was designed. While we plan to continue studying the program in future years and more effects may emerge, our first decade of work suggests two key lessons:

1. Avoid performance requirements. Merit or performance requirements, though popular, seem to limit both the effectiveness and equity of financial aid. When students received The Degree Project funds, it increased their attendance and graduation somewhat, but the performance requirements meant that very few actually received any funding. So why have the requirements? The intent is to support and reward students who have the best chance to succeed in college, and therefore the smallest likelihood of dropping out with debt, but the result is essentially the opposite. Under almost any plausible assumptions, performance requirements reduce the number of college graduates more than they reduce the number who drop out with debt. A second possible argument for performance requirements is that they may induce students to work harder and become more academically prepared for college, but we find no evidence of this either. The main effect of performance requirements, then, is to provide more funds to higher-income families, which only reinforces existing disparities.

2. Use free college and other forms of financial aid to catalyze changes in high schools. Policy debates about financial aid tend to focus narrowly on how it makes college cheaper for the individual students who receive the funds. But to fully realize the effects of aid, it has to be leveraged to improve the college-going cultures of high schools. MPS high schools were not set up to make college a viable option for most students. The schools did not make a college prep curriculum or structured supports broadly available, or expect most students to attend college. The Degree Project, with its narrow focus on giving money to individual students, was not designed to address this larger problem and, as a result, it did not have the catalyzing effect on high schools that has been observed in other free college programs. The performance requirements made matters worse; by significantly narrowing the share of students who could benefit from the program, the requirements reduced the potential for positive “spillover effects” across students and educators. In short, for free college to fulfill its potential, policymakers need to leverage it to change high schools…..