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Who Gets Left Behind by Free College Tuition?

Often the most vulnerable students — who may benefit more from community-oriented programs.
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College affordability is a seemingly rare bird in today’s America: an issue most of us agree on, at least on the basic level that it is, in fact, a problem. A 2014 Gallup poll found that nearly 80 percent of Americans believe higher education is not affordable for everyone who needs it. Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton offered cost-cutting proposals during their presidential campaigns, as did Donald Trump (albeit in less detail). In that spirit, new statewide plans for free tuition have emerged in the past month.

The plans vary in the years of free tuition offered, and the range of public schools they would cover. But they all share a focus on tuition. And recent research suggests that focus can leave out the most socioeconomically disadvantaged students — except, perhaps, when tuition breaks are folded into broad community-based efforts.

Free tuition is most likely to help a significant, but targeted, category of student, according to Tim Ready, a sociology professor at Western Michigan University: those who are academically equipped for college but come from middle-income families earning too much to qualify for full financial aid, yet not enough to cover the rest of tuition themselves. For such students, money is the primary barrier to a college degree, and a free tuition program helps to eliminate that barrier. (It doesn’t fully clear that hurdle, given that students still have to fork over up to thousands of dollars in non-tuition expenses for books, on-campus services, and other demands.)

“You will help some kids, but there will be a lot of students who won’t be able to succeed by that intervention alone.”

But many students who stop their education at high school have not been fully prepared for that next step. Even if having their tuition covered allows them to enroll in higher education programs, it’s still an uphill battle for them to graduate.“You will help some kids, but there will be a whole lot of students who won’t be able to succeed by that intervention alone,” Ready says.

Some research suggests the broader impact of free tuition programs is mixed, disproportionately benefiting the students who are most likely to graduate regardless. In a Brookings Institution report published last year, Matthew Chingos found that tuition and fee breaks at public colleges nationwide saved 24 percent more for students in the top half of family income distribution, compared to those in the bottom half. That means more savings went toward students whose families need them less. Those relatively well-off students also have socioeconomic class advantages that boost their chances of graduating, no matter their academic skill level, according to a Department of Education analysis of student achievement.

Another factor that can muddy the impact of free tuition: university spending on each student. In a recent working paper looking at so-called “non-selective public institutions” — meaning more widely accessible schools — researchers at Harvard University and the University of California–Berkeley reported that spending more on each student, but not lowering tuition, increased rates of enrollment and, importantly, of graduation for that year.

The per-student spending examined in the paper may be something of a hidden issue in the conversation around the costs and returns of a college degree. As the researchers note, public institutions spent 16 percent less per student in 2014 compared to 2000, despite rising price tags. While these public schools have become more expensive, less of their money overall has actually gone toward students.

So what can close the gap when tuition breaks aren’t translating into degrees? Ready is now working alongside what’s become a prototype to address that problem: the Kalamazoo Promise. Based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the program offers a full ride to different public and private institutions for any student who graduates from the district’s public schools (and attended since at least the ninth grade). It sounds like a basic free college deal, and it’s inspired many imitators, including statewide tuition programs in Tennessee (launched during the 2015 school year) and Oregon (which went into effect in the fall of 2016).

But the Kalamazoo Promise has also been described as an “urban revitalization program,” which speaks to its reach beyond tuition, geared toward making sure the students receiving free rides are prepared for college and receive the support needed to graduate. Sister initiatives include Kalamazoo’s Learning Network, a self-described “county-wide PTA” (parent-teacher association), and the local Shared Prosperity jobs program, which Ready helps to steer and hopes can address socioeconomic issues that decades of research have shown to stifle academic achievement. “Addressing out-of-school poverty issues is really important” to complementing these programs, says Ready, who wrote a Brookings memo last year arguing that there are significant limits to tuition-focused efforts.

Kalamazoo’s patchwork of programs exist in part through luck: a set of rich, anonymous donors who have committed to keeping the Promise going, according to Michelle Miller-Adams, a political science professor at Grand Valley State University who assesses Promise-type programs for the non-profit Upjohn Institute. With that backing, Kalamazoo’s program has increased both enrollment and graduation rates for local students, though, as Ready’s Brookings memo noted, it has struggled to make a dent in the district’s overall race and class disparities.

But the most hopeful result from the program may be that, for students making good on the Promise, such disparities seem to disappear. Promise students were just as likely to complete some kind of college whether or not they qualified for lunch subsidies—a measure of family income—and regardless of their race, a 2015 program evaluation found.

From these early results, it looks like helping the most disadvantaged students get through college still comes down to money — so long as that money goes toward more than just tuition.