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Study: Many ‘Free College’ and Promise Programs Unequitable

Free college can be just that for students most in financial need, if a program is designed around equity.

The problem is, many “promise” and other so-called free college state programs are inherently inequitable and are not constructed to benefit low-income students, according to a study by The Education Trust (Ed. Trust).

Dr. Tiffany JonesDr. Tiffany Jones

And because the programs are not deliberately race-conscious, Black and Latino college students – who are more likely to be lower-income – tend to be underrepresented in programs that are open to students of all income levels, according to the study.

Titled “A Promise Fulfilled: A Framework for Equitable Free College Programs,” the report presents an analysis of 15 existing statewide programs and 16 programs proposed through 2017 using an equity framework. Ed. Trust designed the rubric with an eye toward how to strengthen free-college programs in ways that help students who struggle the most to pay for school.

Researchers found that none of the 31 programs met all eight criteria:

  • Help low-income students cover non-tuition living costs
  • Cover the cost of fees as well as tuition
  • Cover the cost of college for at least four years of college
  • Cover the cost of tuition for bachelor’s degree programs at four-year institutions
  • Provide benefits for adult and returning students
  • Not impose GPA requirements that are more restrictive than federal requirements
  • Not impose enrollment-intensity or credit-accumulation requirements that are more restrictive than federal requirements
  • Not demand repayment of aid

The most extensive existing and proposed programs were in Indiana, Massachusetts and Washington, each meeting seven of the eight criteria. Legislation proposed last year in Indiana did not cover fees for all recipients, and legislation proposed in Massachusetts did not cover tuition at four-year colleges. College Bound in the state of Washington does not cover adult and returning students.

Among the eight programs for which researchers were able to disaggregate the data by race and income, several key findings emerged:

  • Free college programs in Washington, Oklahoma, Maryland and Indiana restrict aid eligibility to students defined as low-income based on various criteria. Low-income students are the majority of aid recipients in those programs, which tend to have more equitable participation than programs without an income cap.
  • By contrast, in states that didn’t limit income for program participants, high-income students were more likely to benefit from programs than their low-income peers. In Delaware, for example, 82 percent of 2018 recipients were middle-or upper-income. And in Missouri, one-third of recipients were from upper-income households earning more than $100,000 a year, with half of the program funding gong to students from households earning more than $80,000 a year.
  • African-American and Latino participants tended to be overrepresented in state programs that capped income and underrepresented in those that did not. The exceptions were Latino overrepresentation in Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars capped-income program and slight underrepresentation in Missouri’s A+ Scholarship and Tennessee’s Promise uncapped programs.

“Free college, if designed thoughtfully, could be as pivotal to accessing a college education as the Pell Grant or the GI Bill,” said Dr. Tiffany Jones, the study’s lead author and higher education policy director with Ed. Trust. “Unfortunately, at this moment too many states are racking up political support among upper- and middle-class voters while excluding low-income students in their plans.”

The last-dollar model used by many of the programs at the two-year level covers only tuition – after all other aid has been applied, noted Katie Berger, a senior policy analyst at Ed. Trust and the study’s co-author.

Further, only about 20 percent of the cost of attending a community college is tuition, so students are left with most of the true cost not covered by promise or free-college programs. And community colleges disproportionately attract low-income students, have lower graduation rates and a lower return on investment compared to four-year schools.

Dr. Wilma MishoeDr. Wilma Mishoe

“Students from low-income families attending community colleges can typically afford tuition with help of the Pell Grant, so they don’t benefit from statewide free college programs designed to cover only the cost of tuition,” Berger explained. “However, these students still cannot afford college because they struggle with non-tuition costs such as books, housing and transportation.”

The inequity underscored by the study did not surprise Dr. Wilma Mishoe, president of Delaware State University. Lower-income and first-generation students are less likely to be aware of the programs or have the support systems to take advantage of them, she has observed.

Administrators of free-college and promise programs need to increase efforts to raise awareness among underrepresented groups, such as working more with high schools and community safe spaces, said Mishoe.

“More has to be done in that respect,” she said. “These students miss out simply because they’re not aware.”

And, she added, more must be done to address elements of the study’s equity rubric that ensure that low-income students are able to enter college and persist financially.

“With low-income students, if you aren’t helping them with all of the costs, you’re not doing them any favors to dangle part of it in front of them.”

LaMont Jones can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter DrLaMontJones.

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