Tuition-free college movement gains momentum, despite Biden’s stalled plan
College Promise programs, as tuition-free initiatives are commonly referred to, enjoy broad support across the political spectrum. Forty-seven states and DC have at least one such program at the college, city, or state level. There are 33 statewide programs that cover tuition at community colleges or universities and higher education, and experts say the number is likely to grow.
Universal public college critics say the price is unsustainable. Opponents of the tuition-free community college say too many schools are performing poorly, with less than 40% of students graduating in six years. Proponents argue this could be fixed by providing more institutional dollars and financial aid to keep students on track.
A handful of bills have been introduced in Congress to provide tuition-free access to community colleges or public universities, but none have moved forward.
Biden continues to call on the federal government to strengthen its role in subsidizing colleges. In his first State of the Union address this week, the president urged Congress to “invest in what Jill, our first lady, … calls America’s best-kept secret: community colleges.”
Neither Biden nor First Lady Jill Biden, a professor at Northern Virginia Community College, has admitted defeat in forging a federal-state partnership to lower the cost of college. Their plans were scuttled as Democrats battled and failed to reach consensus on the president’s Build Back Better package. But Biden continues to emphasize politics as a priority.
Supporters welcome the pledge because they say federal dollars are critical to the longevity of College Promise programs.
“There is a real opportunity to build on what local communities and states are doing,” said Martha Kanter, executive director of the nonprofit College Promise Campaign. A federal-state partnership “will create a sustainable staffing process that could fully fund this for all.”
Meanwhile, Kanter, a former undersecretary of education in the Obama administration, said heads of state were increasing their investments in post-secondary education as part of their economic strategy.
Take New Mexico, where Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) on Friday signed into law legislation that funds tuition for up to 35,000 residents to earn certificates, associate’s and bachelor’s degrees this fall. The bill would create one of the most inclusive College Promise programs in the nation by covering tuition for part-time students and adult learners returning to school.
Many tuition plans only cover full-time students fresh out of high school and provide funding after other state and federal grants are taken into account – what’s called a last-dollar model. New Mexico, however, will provide funding before other scholarships are applied. This means that a student whose family income is low enough to qualify for a Pell Grant can use those federal dollars for other college expenses.
“Signing this legislation sends a clear message to New Mexicans that we believe in them and the contributions they will make to their families and to the future of our great state,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement Friday.
The legislation expands the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship program, one of four existing state scholarships. New Mexico was among the first in the country in 1996 to offer high school graduates a tuition-free path to college with lottery proceeds.
The Lottery scholarship paid students’ tuition in full until 2016, when declining state revenue reduced coverage. A resurgence in ticket sales and increased budget appropriations now allow the state to fully fund the program, but lawmakers say eligibility requirements exclude non-traditional students.
The Opportunity Fellowship expansion aims to remedy the problem, but the Legislature has only agreed to fund the expansion for one year. Most of the $75 million investment comes from federal pandemic relief funds and some worry the broad eligibility could sink the program down the road.
A number of states have used federal pandemic funds to bolster College Promise programs. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) used part of the state allocation to create Futures for Frontliners, a scholarship for essential workers to attend community college.
After the exchange rolled out in 2020, around 100,000 people signed up, Whitmer said in an interview last year. Those who did not qualify were encouraged to apply for Michigan Reconnect, which covers community college tuition for residents 25 and older without a degree.
Public response highlighted cost as a barrier, she said, while political support for the initiative highlighted the importance of workforce training.
“We’ve really been able to build a vibrant coalition of business leaders, Democrats, Republicans…because employers in our state will tell you their greatest need is a skilled workforce,” Whitmer said. “We could find common ground and strengthen our economy, which helps everyone.”
Brandy Johnson, president of the Michigan Community College Association, credits tuition-free programs with boosting enrollment in 2021. Although enrollment numbers are still below pre-pandemic levels, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has tracked a 19% increase at the state level. two-year schools in 2021, after a 20% decline the previous year.
There’s a sense of urgency among state leaders to re-engage people who have fallen off the path to credentialing since the pandemic, said College Promise’s Kanter. It is also recognized that the cost of higher education can be prohibitive for many low- and middle-income families.
The University of Texas System Board of Regents recognized it recently when the members signed February 23 on Promise Plus, a new endowment to expand tuition coverage at seven of eight UT schools (UT-Austin already has such a fund).
Universities currently cover tuition and fees for full-time undergraduate students whose family income is below a certain threshold, which varies by institution. The new endowment will allow schools to raise their thresholds to help more students. The board expects the fund to generate $15 million annually and provide each campus with approximately $1 million to supplement their tuition plans.
“It’s huge for getting kids into our institutions and crossing finish lines and linking learning to employability,” one of the regents, Nolan Perez, said at the Feb. 23 meeting.
States are enjoying large budget surpluses stemming from economic recovery and federal aid, said Thomas Harnisch, vice president of government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
While fluctuating state revenues could pose a threat to tuition-free plans, he said the broad appeal and cost structure of many programs gives them power. Many states offer last-dollar programs, which help contain costs, though advocates say they also limit benefits for low-income students.
Still, Harnisch said the federal government needs to partner with states to make public higher education more affordable in the long run.
“When states have lean budget years, higher education is one of the first things to be cut and that leads to higher tuition fees,” he said. “We want to develop a system that incentivizes states to maintain their higher education funding and not just rely so much on increases in the federal Pell Grant program.”