- Some free college programs don't do enough to meet the financial needs of low-income students, according to two recent reports examining the issue, Inside Higher Ed reported. The reports argue that the last-dollar model these programs employ leaves non-tuition costs such as living expenses and textbooks unmet, creating a barrier to access in higher education.
- A report from the Education Trust analyzed 16 proposed and 15 existing free college programs across eight factors including whether the program covers all four years of tuition, living expenses and fees, and considers adult learners. It found that programs met half the criteria, on average.
- Meanwhile, a report from the Institute of Higher Education Policy (IHEP) looking at last-dollar programs in Tennessee and New York recommends funding expenses such as housing, textbooks and other fees for low-income students as well as including four-year colleges in free college programs.
Lowering the cost of attendance has become a top priority for colleges and universities as they seek to boost enrollment. As these two reports indicate, the costs in question extend beyond tuition.
Oregon is addressing the issue of wealthier students benefiting more from last-dollar programs because they qualify for less or no need-based aid. Its Oregon Promise scholarship awards at least $1,000 to qualifying low-income students that have tuition covered by financial aid in order to help fund non-tuition costs such as fees, transportation and textbooks, CNN reported.
In Columbus, Ohio, Marion Technical College's Get To Next Scholars program gives students a stipend to help cover textbooks if they complete 30 first-year credit hours and have at least a 2.5 GPA; second-year tuition is paid through the program. Awardees must meet regularly with academic advisers, career counselors and other students in the group.
Some critics argue that such added stipulations are unnecessary and free-college programs should have the same rules for eligibility as federal college aid programs.
The Tennessee Promise program, which was called out in the IHEP report, has been shown to increase access to college and improve graduation rates. The number of students earning a degree or certificate in five semesters increased 60% from the 2014 graduating cohort to the 2015 graduating cohort, the latter of which marked the start of the program, the Tennessean reported.
Income share agreements (ISAs) could be one way to make sure students' financial needs are met. In ISAs, the institution helps students cover the cost of tuition in exchange for a percentage of their income after graduation. However, institutions need to educate their students on this kind of arrangement as it can be confused with predatory lending schemes.