Heading into the 2018 midterm elections, state and local Democratic candidates are rallying around the "free college" concept, although a national agenda is unlikely, Inside Higher Ed reported.
Free college has moved from policy to a primetime voter issue during the last few years as politicians seek to appeal to families who want to improve socioeconomic mobility for their children in an era of rising college costs. Roughly 10 gubernatorial candidates, including Ben Jealous in Maryland and David Garcia in Arizona, are running on free college plans.
Critics say the programs can be inconsistent, costly and difficult to implement effectively, arguing that the last-dollar model doesn't support those it intends to: low-income students whose tuition is covered by federal financial aid but cannot afford additional costs such as room and board.
While the free college concept may be relatively new to the voting public and therefore seem like a great way to win votes, candidates risk underestimating the resources needed to put the plan into action.
In a separate article, Inside Higher Ed explained that New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy campaigned on free community college. He needed $50 million to run the program, but lawmakers only approved $25 million for a pilot involving 19 community colleges.
Scott Jenkins, strategy director of the Lumina Foundation, told the publication that free college programs should start small and expand according to program need. That reality can trouble politicians seeking to appeal to a statewide voter base.
Despite the challenges in getting resources to the students who need it most, free college programs are gaining support. A recent report from The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, found that per-student funding for full-time equivalent (FTE) students enrolled in the six Promise programs in the U.S. increased between 12% and 142% in the years during and around the Great Recession. Overall funding per FTE student across higher education dropped between 18% and 38% in each state during that period.
The growth in Promise funding occurred as states cut their financial aid budgets at an average national rate of 6% per FTE, the report found.