- West Virginia is the latest state to offer a free college program after its Gov. Jim Justice signed a plan into law last week that offers residents free tuition and fees for certificates and associate degrees at community and technical colleges, WTAP reported.
- Like several of the some 20 states with similar plans, the funds are last-dollar amounts applied after other aid. Participating students must remain in the state for two years after graduating or else repay the grant as a loan, maintain a 2.0 GPA, and each term complete two hours of unpaid community service and pass a drug test, among other requirements.
- The state has not specified the programs covered under the West Virginia Invests grants, but the program website says they would be in "high-demand" fields such as information technology and health care.
State-level free college programs have taken shape throughout the country in recent years. While their features vary, some say they don't go far enough to cover the full suite of costs associated with attending college — including transportation, rent and child care — that could hamper or exclude those who could benefit the most from such funding.
Tuition accounts for just 20% of college costs for the typical student attending a two-year public college and living off campus, and it is largely covered by federal aid, according to The Education Trust.
In September, The Trust released a report analyzing 15 existing and 16 proposed free college programs against eight criteria the group pinpointed that promote equity. No state programs met all the criteria, which included paying for living costs, being available to adult learners, requiring a minimum GPA, staying a grant permanently and covering tuition at four-year colleges.
Not all of the criteria are easy for states to meet. For instance, offering four years of free college tends to be more expensive than most states can afford, according to a recent article from The Hechinger Report that weighed the mixed results of free college programs so far. Other criticisms of free college include academic performance requirements that restrict the participant pool to those already likely to succeed in college, as well as limited additional funding for colleges whose student population grows as a result of the initiative.
A recent survey by APM Research Lab found about three-quarters of Americans support free college, with strong support among people under the age of 45, Democrats, minorities and women. The Campaign for Free College Tuition reported similar results from a November survey.
Free college programs have reported some early wins. In Rhode Island, twice as many students matriculated from high school to community college with full-time status after a free tuition program was implemented in the state. And in Tennessee, state officials reported that its first class of graduates in the program had a 60% increase in degree or credential attainment over the prior cohort.
The issue is expected to be a talking point in the 2020 presidential election, at least among Democrats. Most top Democratic presidential candidates have signaled support for some sort of free college initiative, though the specifics vary, The Atlantic reported.