As college costs steadily rise, students face unprecedented financial barriers as they pursue higher education. Many federal, state, and institutional policymakers tout free-college programs as solutions to addressing college affordability challenges. But IHEP analysis of two state free-college programs, Tennessee Promise and New York’s Excelsior Scholarship, show that to help low-income students afford college, free-college programs must be designed with equity at their core.
The State of Free College: Tennessee Promise and New York’s Excelsior Scholarship finds that neither Tennessee Promise nor the Excelsior Scholarship allocate scarce state funding to the students with the greatest need. To evaluate if these programs have improved college affordability, IHEP examined the net prices at public colleges in both states before and after the implementation of the free-college programs. The analyses assessed affordability for three student profiles with different financial means and different personal and household characteristics. The research found that both programs do little to remove affordability barriers for low-income students, and instead allocate limited funding to middle- and, in the case of Tennessee, high-income students.
The report identifies opportunities to better target existing programs and puts forth recommendations to help design equity-driven federal and state free-college programs.
- Invest first and foremost in low-income students.
- Fund non-tuition expenses for low-income students.
- Include four-year colleges in free college programs.
- Support existing state need-based grant programs.
- Avoid restrictive or punitive participation requirements, such as post-college residency requirements.
Free-college programs hold enormous promise in helping more students afford college, but these programs must be equity-driven and designed to best serve the students most in need.