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Why Are Free College Programs So Successful?

And what can other federal programs learn from their success?
Students walk through campus at the University of California–Berkeley.

In a report published last weekJen Mishory, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, sheds some light on an oft-debated topic in education circles: Do the benefits of "free college" programs outweigh the costs?

There has been a proliferation of state-level "free college" programs in recent years. In 2014, Tennessee rolled out its Tennessee Promise initiative, which covers tuition and fees for all recent high school graduates at state community colleges and technical schools. Since then, eight additional states—New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Montana, Minnesota, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Nevada—have introduced similar programs. (Tennessee also extended its tuition guarantee last year to adult learners.) These programs vary in their specifics, but they share a couple of crucial characteristics: They offer free tuition and they're not merit-based, meaning more students are eligible for them.

Many of these initiatives cover a higher-income group of students than those typically eligible for Pell grants or other means-tested forms of financial aid. There are pros and cons to these programs. The biggest drawback is cost: They're expensive. What's more, they may ultimately increase state spending on wealthier students, who are often more likely, for a range of reasons, to go to college.

Advocates for this type of program design counter that free, universal (or at least more broadly targeted) tuition programs are more likely to be sustainable thanks to their clear mandate and the large base of support they engender. Extending such programs to middle- and upper-middle-income families, the thinking goes, will lead such families—who are also more likely than low-income families to vote—to support these endeavors, and demand that their political representatives support them as well. (Taking a cue from the larger social policy world, Social Security and Medicare engender dramatically more popular support than means-tested programs like Medicaid and food stamps.)

In her report, Mishory compared state-level spending on an earlier generation of Promise-type programs to spending on higher education more generally during the Great Recession. States dramatically cut funding for higher education in the years after 2008; as of 2017, spending in most states was still not back to pre-Recession levels. These spending cuts have led tuition at public institutions to spike dramatically and, researchers believe, have driven some students to enroll in low-quality, for-profit institutions where they are less likely to earn valuable degrees or credentials (and more likely to rack up student debt).

But in the six states that Mishory studied—Delaware, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Oklahoma—funding for Promise programs did not fall. In fact, Mishory finds that "funding per full-time equivalent students for all six existing Promise programs grew between 12 and 142 percent." This growth occurred at the same time as overall per-student appropriations in each state fell by 18 to 38 percent.

Across the different states she studied, Mishory found a range of technical explanations for this finding; some of the programs were protected by special budget processes, and the structure of the programs allowed advocates to increase take-up. She also found that those programs disproportionately beneficial to wealthy households retained higher levels of support, and that "policymakers viewed early commitment-free college programs as a contract that they had an obligation to uphold, paralleling the support held by larger-scale social insurance programs." The latter finding held true even for programs that were not truly universal and were targeted at low- and middle-income families.

This debate over universal vs. means-tested policy design is long-standing. (The question of how to increase college affordability and access was a major area of disagreement between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primaries.) It's taken on a new urgency, however, given both the challenges faced by middle-class Americans in the modern economy and the growing, widespread distrust and hostility toward the federal government—much of which is driven by middle-class Americans' resentment toward means-tested programs they earn a bit too much to qualify for.

As Mishory notes, this research offers some clear lessons to inform this debate: namely that clear messaging can increase program support and sustainability, and that policies don't necessarily have to be truly universal to be popular.