Free for Whom? Free College Considerations for Community College Leaders

Community colleges have long been dedicated to serving all members of their communities and providing educational and economic opportunities to those facing barriers to college enrollment.  If statewide free college programs are going to support them in this vital work, programs must be designed with equity in mind.

Across the U.S., voters and advocates have been clamoring for a more accessible and affordable system of higher education. Answering that call, community colleges provide a low-cost pathway to postsecondary and career opportunities, especially for those who have historically been shut out of, or poorly served by, American colleges and universities.

So how will state policymakers leverage public two-year institutions as they seek to expand college access and success? One increasingly popular idea is the creation of a statewide free college or college promise program. Free college programs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but generally cover at least the cost of tuition for qualifying students, and embrace clear messaging to increase college aspirations and enrollment. Many recently adopted statewide programs—including those in Rhode Island, Tennessee, Hawaii, Nevada, and Oregon—are focused on the two-year sector, making it all the more important that community college leaders be actively engaged in the development of free college programs and policies.

As a first step, it’s vital that community college trustees and presidents understand how various design elements affect who benefits from free college programs. To that end, The Education Trust recently released an analysis of 31 enacted and proposed free college programs. We evaluated programs based on eight equity-driven criteria related to who benefits, what benefits are provided, and what requirements are placed on students after they leave college. In keeping with Ed Trust’s mission, these criteria are intended to examine the degree to which states are incorporating program design elements that support the students who are least well served by higher education, including low-income students and students of color. We found significant variation in the types of free college and college promise programs that states have adopted and considered, and concluded that, in many cases, programs are not being designed with a focus on equity.

Of the 13 active statewide programs we examined, eight are capped at the cost of tuition, limited to relatively low-cost institutions, and are last dollar (i.e., kick in only after other aid has been applied). As a result, these programs provide minimal financial benefits for the lowest income students because they qualify for need-based aid, like the federal Pell Grant, sufficient to cover the cost of tuition. However, as community college leaders are well aware, low-income students still struggle to cover the full cost of college, including transportation, housing, books, and other expenses. These non-tuition costs together account for 80 percent of the average community college student’s cost of attendance, and often derail low-income students from enrolling full time and completing degrees in a timely fashion.

The vast majority of statewide free college programs also exclude adults and returning students. Only two active statewide programs—those in Tennessee and Hawaii—provide benefits to adults. Nine programs restrict eligibility to students who are enrolled full time or who earn 30 credits per academic year, despite the fact that these programs often fail to provide sufficient aid to allow low-income students to forgo work.

We also found a concerning trend in programs and proposals that seek to reclaim grant funds from students who move out of state or fail to get a job after leaving college. New York’s active program and proposed programs in Florida and Wisconsin included such provisions, which in some cases function a penalty for unemployed residents and those who are forced to move out of state to find a job.

On a more encouraging note, free college discussions in some states are prompting policymakers to examine the capacity of community colleges, and to pursue new investments, resources, and reforms to make campuses more “student ready.” Community college leaders should take advantage of the momentum surrounding free college movement to advocate for policies and programs that will improve their campuses’ abilities to serve students and, and to draw attention to the value of community colleges. This may include investing in student success, advancing proposals to create a more seamless pathway to and through higher education, and emphasizing the vital role that community colleges play in preparing students to pursue their goals, whether that be entering the workforce or transferring to a four-year institution.

Community colleges have long been dedicated to serving all members of their communities and providing educational and economic opportunities to those facing barriers to college enrollment, including low-income residents, working adults, parents, and students of color. If statewide free college programs are going to support them in this vital work, they must be designed with equity in mind. Check out Ed Trust’s report, A Promise Fulfilled: A Framework for Equitable Free College Programs, for more insights on how to ensure that free college programs advance equity.

Katie Berger is a Senior Policy Analyst for Higher Education at the Education Trust. She can be reached at

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