“Free college.” Who would object to the idea of giving aspiring scholars a free ride? But as higher education programs are being unveiled in many states across the country, it’s worth asking: What do these programs actually entail?
Currently 16 states administer no-cost college plans based on the “Promise Program” model, a much-lauded initiative in Tennessee launched under the Obama administration. Students can qualify for tuition-free or debt-free financing for a degree program at a state institution (usually the equivalent of two-year community college with the option of transferring to a four-year program). The idea is to remove the burden of post-graduation student debt by covering through a combination of subsidies and grants, nearly all basic tuition and programming fees. Unlike partial scholarships or grants for top students, the program is designed to take care of most or all basic costs and to offer widespread access, akin to regular K-12 education.
This is, of course, a breakthrough in a deeply corporatized, financially unsustainable higher-education system. But researchers at the Century Foundation (TCF) warn of speed bumps in this seemingly righteous quest for free degrees. Although state policy-makers market “community college for all” as the most flexible way to boost the skilled and professional workforce with affordable bachelor’s and associate’s credentials, researchers note that the system “targets aid awards to a population (community college students) that tends to be lower-income and need the support the most.”
So the big promise often comes with reams of fine print: It might include strictly limited income-eligibility criteria and academic-performance standards, or completion or programming requirements that are out of sync with struggling students’ economic capacities.
Often programs require students to be enrolled full-time, which is unrealistic for many low-wage working parents and older students who have no independent source of financial support. Eleven of the 16 programs evaluated were open only to recent high-school graduates—which might automatically exclude people in extreme poverty, the formerly incarcerated, workers with GED qualifications, or recent and undocumented immigrants. Another problem is that if only tuition fees are covered, students would strain to cover additional cost burdens like books, housing, and food (it’s not uncommon on many campuses for undergraduates to be literally going hungry.)