- For free college programs to succeed, students need more than the promise of funding, argues a report from the Brookings Institution examining one of the first such initiatives, the 2011 Degree Project in Milwaukee, and recommending ways to improve their design.
- The project offered students at 18 area high schools $12,000 for college if they met certain academic criteria. The funds would cover a two-year degree in full or part of a four-year degree at in-state institutions. However, the researchers found the project had little impact on high school performance and college attendance.
- Researchers cited three reasons why: The academic performance requirements — a 2.5 GPA and 90% attendance — limited the participant pool and favored students with a high likelihood of attending and succeeding in college; the program's small scale blunted its "catalyzing effect" on high school students; and the participating schools were low-performing, with limited support for students.
When designed to address those three concerns, the Brookings report maintains, free college programs have the potential to improve college-going culture at high schools. That is in part because they can be an ongoing source of information about what is needed to meet academic requirements for college, and they make clear that higher education is available to a student regardless of their socioeconomic background or academic history.
The free college concept is gaining momentum as the higher education industry grapples with strong consumer demand to lower costs. Other pathways include heftier tuition discounts, reduced sticker prices and more place-based scholarships and need- and merit-based aid.
Such programs typically only cover tuition, however. That has drawn skepticism of their impact, as they risk leaving out students who cannot afford to finance other costs such as room and board, textbooks, fees and travel to and from college.
A recent report from the Education Trust examined 16 proposed and 15 existing free college programs, finding many left critical costs unfulfilled. The report rated programs on eight equity-focused criteria, including whether a program covers non-tuition costs or requires repayment of aid. Of the approved or authorized programs, six covered living costs while nine did not. And only six proposed programs covered such expenses.
As colleges reconsider tuition rates and aid, growing awareness of inequity around non-tuition costs has some seeking to close the gap. Rice University this week said it will offer grant aid covering tuition, mandatory fees and room and board to students with family incomes of less than $65,000. And Oregon’s Promise scholarship offers at least $1,000 per year to qualifying low-income full-time students whose tuition is covered by financial aid.