- Free college initiatives are significantly more effective when accompanied by non-tuition financial incentives and other support, according to new research from consulting firm MDRC that looks at one such program in Detroit.
- Retention, full-time enrollment and credit accumulation rose when students in the Detroit Promise free college program were offered extra support through a "Path" program. That included a $50 monthly stipend via gift card in exchange for meeting with coaches, as well as encouragement to take summer classes or participate in a summer jobs program.
- In their first year, Path students earned 1.7% more credits on average than students who just got the Promise scholarship — a 25% increase — and 2.4% more credits by the end of second year, according to MDRC, which helped develop the Detroit initiative. Additionally, the program contributed a few percentage points to full-time enrollment.
Interest in free college is growing. About 20 states offer some version of the program, with Michigan and West Virginia among the latest to do so. It also is likely to be a point of debate among Democrats in the lead-up to the 2020 election, with several contenders for that party's presidential nomination galvanizing support for free college.
Arguably the most detailed proposal yet comes from presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Last week, the Massachusetts Democrat proposed free tuition at public two- and four-year colleges nationwide, funded by the state and federal government.
As momentum builds behind the concept, the MDRC report, as well as other recent research, show that although such programs have reported success, certain factors such as limited support beyond tuition waivers and restrictive participation requirements can blunt their impact.
Last fall, a report from the Education Trust found many free college initiatives don't offer enough support to help students afford costs related to college attendance aside from tuition, such as transportation, textbooks and living expenses. Another report out last fall, this one from the Institute for Higher Education Policy, similarly recommended the programs provide those funds.
Reviewing two existing free college programs, it also suggested they target low-income students, include four-year degrees and avoid highly restrictive participation requirements
Those criteria, which can include GPA and high school attendance, tend to limit the participant pool to those already likely to find their way to and succeed in college, a recent Brookings Institution report found.
Examining the 2011 Degree Project, a free college program in Milwaukee, it found the initiative did little to improve performance in high school and college attendance, attributing the results to stringent academic performance requirements and a focus on high schools with limited support for students.
Extra supports are also important at the colleges to which these students are drawn. Although access to community colleges improves as a result of free college programs, those institutions too often can't meet the demand and need for the services that these programs generate, The Century Foundation explained in a December report. It called on state and federal policymakers to allocate more funding to bolster services such as academic and financial aid counseling at the colleges.