Is ‘free college’ really free?

Ann Hermes/Staff
Tufayel Ahmed (r.), a freshman computer science major at City College of New York, studies in the library with classmates Sakil Khan and Emma Athow in May. Mr. Ahmed received the state's Excelsior Scholarship, which helps cover his tuition. Currently 24 states pay for tuition – and sometimes more – for a subset of students.
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Brenden Bixby chose college over working full time on the apple orchard that his dad manages in Poughkeepsie, New York. He receives the state’s Excelsior Scholarship and other grants to cover his tuition.

But he’s taking out loans for room and board at SUNY Cobleskill, which averages about $13,000 a year. Halfway through college, Mr. Bixby doesn’t know exactly how much he’s borrowed. “I try not to think about it too much just because I don’t want it to bring me down,” he says.

Why We Wrote This

To make college more accessible, states are jumping in with ‘free college’ plans, but the concept is still evolving – generating debates about who benefits, who should pay for it, and what strings should be attached.

“Free college” scholarships have been proliferating in the United States. Currently, 24 states offer “college promises,” as they are often called, though their eligibility and scope vary widely. Some Democratic presidential contenders also champion the idea as a national solution.

It’s all in response to a growing sentiment that cost has put college degrees out of reach for too many students. Yet there’s often a big gap between free college rhetoric and the reality that boosting higher education success is a complex puzzle. Ultimately, it comes down to a certain amount of trial and error – and persistence – both for the students and the public college systems. 

Tufayel Ahmed is leading an ordinary college life with an extraordinary price tag for tuition: $0.


The first in his Bengali-immigrant family to attend college, he’s the beneficiary of a statewide program that will cover four years of tuition so he can earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science at the public City College of New York (CCNY), an oasis in Upper Manhattan where the quad’s chunky neo-Gothic buildings remind him of castles.

Why We Wrote This

To make college more accessible, states are jumping in with ‘free college’ plans, but the concept is still evolving – generating debates about who benefits, who should pay for it, and what strings should be attached.

The lean freshman with a thick wave of black hair atop his forehead lives at home in Queens, and he doesn’t anticipate needing any loans. “That was actually one of my goals, to make sure that I’m able to finish college without having to have a huge debt on my shoulder,” Mr. Ahmed says.

His father’s income from working at a hotel disqualifies him for federal Pell grants and the state’s tuition assistance program for low-income students. But in 2017, New York state rolled out its Excelsior Scholarship with families like Mr. Ahmed’s in mind. It expands help from the state to much of the middle class, covering public tuition not already paid for by other grants for students with a household income under $125,000. Recipients need to be state residents for a year before college, enroll as full-time undergraduates, and stay on track to finish on time. 

The offer is a bold step that people often refer to with an even bolder shorthand: “free college.”

Ann Hermes/Staff
Tufayel Ahmed poses for a portrait on campus on April 25, 2019, in New York. Mr. Ahmed says he doesn’t take his freedom from financial concerns for granted. ‘It’s a huge opportunity for kids like me,’ he says, ‘because it gives us more time to actually do things that we love,’ which in his case is coding.

Free college isn’t as simple as the hyperbolic label makes it sound. Living expenses – on or off campus – and other non-tuition costs are often higher than public tuition, and aren’t covered by most programs. But the catchy phrase represents a growing sentiment that cost has put college degrees out of reach for too many students – and has led to a national load of student debt topping $1.5 trillion, nearly the size of Russia’s economy.

Politically popular 

These scholarships, also referred to as “college promises,” have been proliferating in recent years throughout the United States. Hundreds of programs serve a local pool of high school graduates, often with philanthropic support. Twenty-four states offer college promises, though their eligibility and scope vary widely. (See map.)


College Promise Campaign, data as of May 10, 2019

Jacob Turcotte and Stacy Teicher Khadaroo/Staff

On the national level, free college is a prominent talking point for many Democratic presidential candidates. Earlier, President Barack Obama called for free community college, and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, became a magnet to youth voters in 2016 when he included four-year degrees in his free college plan.

In Congress last year, Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, pushed the envelope even further with his Debt-Free College Act, which would cover more than just tuition for those who need aid at public colleges, through a federal-state partnership. He reintroduced it in March.

As long as Republicans control the U.S. Senate, such expensive ideas are unlikely to gain traction. But state plans already underway offer a more concrete story.

After years of post-recession cuts to higher education budgets, many states have finally turned the corner and begun reinvesting. And college promise plans are making a real difference in family balance sheets from Oklahoma to Rhode Island. They are demonstrating that a desire to shore up higher education’s role in promoting social mobility and the economy can transcend partisanship.

“We’ve seen both Democratic and Republican [state] leaders embrace this issue because it is politically popular,” says Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy for The Education Trust in Washington, D.C., which advocates for educational equity. Even as alternative pathways such as apprenticeships are growing, “there’s no ignoring the critical importance that [higher education] continues to play in students’ ability to participate in the economy.”

Whether making college free for large swaths of the population is a good idea is still a point of debate, however. A number of conservatives argue that it won’t produce a high enough rate of return – and might even harm the economy by leading to higher taxes.

They also see higher education as more of a private good than a public one. “The predominant gainers from attending college are the people who go to college themselves,” says Richard Vedder, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and author of the new book “Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America.” Since college graduates tend to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more over the course of their lifetime, “why should not someone making those kinds of gains pay for it, just like they would pay for any other investment they make?” he says.

Even some Democratic presidential contenders – Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, for instance – have come out against free public four-year colleges. 

Trial and error in execution

But among those who support more comprehensive free college, there’s also a lot to hash out about how to structure it to be fair and effective.

The Tennessee Promise, covering community college tuition and offering various other supports for students since 2015, is often looked to as a model. The governor of Washington state is expected to sign into law next week an expanded college promise that some experts consider the most progressive in the nation.

New York made its splash in 2017, because Excelsior was the first statewide program to cover not just community colleges, but also four-year schools for students beyond the lowest income level and regardless of high school GPA.

So far, 20,000 students have received Excelsior, with the state budgeting $92.4 million for the 2018-19 school year. Thanks to a combination of state and federal aid, tuition is now free for 55 percent of in-state, full-time undergraduates at State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) campuses, says Daniel Fuller, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s deputy secretary for education, in a phone interview.

Yet there’s often a big gap between free college rhetoric and the reality that boosting higher education success is a complex puzzle. Ultimately, it comes down to a certain amount of trial and error – and persistence – both for the students and the public college systems.

A closer look at such experiments can help inform policy debates and even kitchen-table conversations about how to target higher education aid to give both students and taxpayers the biggest bang for their buck.

“We’re happy to see so much energy around this big investment,” says Ms. Jones of The Education Trust. “We just want to make sure those investments are made in the best ways, and that means actually impacting the ability of low-income students to pay for college.”

College promise plans are one way to give wings to students’ educational aspirations.

By communicating in K-12 schools that tuition will be covered, they can motivate more students to complete high school, take a college-prep curriculum, and enroll. The promise in Kalamazoo, Michigan, has been around long enough to also show a boost in college completion.  

But if policymakers don’t get the right formula for support, they may not generate the hoped-for gains.

In New York, advocates for more investment in higher education say too many people are left out of the Excelsior Scholarship, and that its requirement of full-time attendance and on-time graduation may result in the most disadvantaged students losing eligibility partway through school. 

Nationwide, only about 6 out of 10 full-time students at public institutions complete a bachelor’s degree within six years, let alone four. 

So if students heed the call to stretch themselves and dream beyond a high school diploma or associate degree, and then they trip over the strings attached, it can feel like the promise has fallen flat, too.

One example: stymied by credits

Yerania Aguilar embodies both the promise and the pitfalls.

She’s the first in her family to earn an associate degree – from Queensborough Community College in New York – and it was virtually free. A special program there covered not only tuition, but also transportation and books, and helped her keep on track with strong advisement.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Yerania Aguilar, a junior at Queens College, part the City University of New York system, poses for a portrait on campus in May. She’s the first in her family to earn an associate’s degree, which was virtually free. Now, at a four-year college, a misunderstanding with her schedule and credits changed her Excelsior Scholarship eligibility.

She arrived in the U.S. from Mexico at age 3, and still lives with her sister and their single mother in Queens. By some markers, she is living the American Dream.

“I was definitely thankful” for free community college, “which is maybe why it got to my head: If it could happen to me the first two years, it could happen to me the second two years. But no, it didn’t work like that,” Ms. Aguilar says, sitting on a saggy couch in the basement of the student union at Queens College, where she’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in exercise science.

Last spring, at the end of her second semester here, she found out that dropping a class in her first semester had thrown her off track. She thought she had a green light for her schedule. By her count, she was still earning 31 credits for the year, she says, and Excelsior requires 30. But then a college official told her she hadn’t earned enough credits related to her major.

“For that spring semester I had to pay back $639,” she says, the amount of her Excelsior Scholarship after other aid covered the rest. Tuition at CUNY four-year campuses, including Queens College and Mr. Ahmed’s CCNY, is $6,730 per year.

Her questions to campus officials were never satisfactorily answered, she says, but she paid it and moved forward without the scholarship. She had also lost future eligibility by declaring a minor, which would make it impossible to finish her degree on time.

She chose psychology as her minor, to prepare for graduate school on her way to becoming a pediatric physical therapist. She knew that would be a good career when she assisted Sebastian, a child diagnosed with cerebral palsy, during an assignment at her community college.

“He said he couldn’t put on a sock, and then [we found] other ways for him to put on a sock without it being such a hassle. And at the end of the day he was able to put it on, and it just felt so heartwarming,” she says.

She babysits and tutors, and her mother, who works in housekeeping, helps cover nearly $1,000 in expenses each semester. She knows that’s relatively cheap for college, but says that because of Excelsior, the cost was unexpected.

“When they first introduce you to the scholarship, it sounds very easy, ... but then the contract itself is very confusing,” she says. 

Knowing what she knows now, Ms. Aguilar says, “I would have taken a year off after community college to save up.”

A carrot or a stick?

Many students struggle to line up the right courses to graduate on time, especially when campus resources are stretched thin, so Excelsior’s 30-credits-per-year rule is “placing the onus on the student for a problem that’s really systemic,” says Emily Skydel, issue coordinator for higher education affordability at New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), which has a chapter at Queens College.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Students walk in and out of the North Academic Center at the City College of New York in May. Tuition at CCNY is $6,730 per year.

The Monitor spoke with several CUNY Excelsior scholars who are taking extra-heavy course loads or considering summer classes to stay on track, but state scholarships can be used only in the spring and fall semesters, so they would have to pay out of pocket.

“Funding for CUNY and SUNY has essentially been flat” after accounting for inflation in recent years, Ms. Skydel says. “You can’t just waive the cost but not invest in the system.”

The state’s Higher Education Services Corp. plans to track how many students lose eligibility for Excelsior, but doesn’t yet have a number, Mr. Fuller says. As for students being shut out of needed classes, he says, “we have not had that problem reported to us from either SUNY or CUNY. ... They were very clear to us that ... kids will not be denied their scholarship because they can’t get into a class in their major,” he says. Students can appeal through HESC. 

Several campus leaders say the 30-credit rule is a plus, bolstering a broader set of efforts to keep students on an efficient path toward graduation.

At CUNY’s 25 campuses, the share of full-time students earning 30 credits in their first year rose from 45 percent in 2013-14 to 55 percent in 2017-18. The 3,300 Excelsior scholars appear to be contributing to the rise, says senior vice chancellor and chief financial officer Matthew Sapienza.

But the four-year timeline doesn’t take into account the relationship between the racial wealth gap and college completion, and can further disadvantage black and Hispanic students, says Alan Aja, associate professor in Puerto Rican and Latino studies at CUNY’s Brooklyn College.  

College progress is affected not just by income, but also by whether a family has a financial safety net to lean on during hard times, he says. Nationally, while 39 percent of white students complete public four-year schools within four years, only 19 percent of blacks and 26 percent of Hispanics do, the National Center on Education Statistics reports.

“Why not just have tuition free for all?,” which CUNY did for many decades before 1976, Professor Aja says. The strings attached are like “a form of workfare, and it’s something that we unfairly do to communities of color.” That approach is like saying the person needs fixing in order to work harder, he says, but poor people are already working hard, and it’s the institutional inequality that needs fixing.

He’s also concerned about the fact that if students don’t work in the state after graduation for the same number of years that they receive the scholarship, it will convert into a no-interest loan that they have to pay back (with exceptions, like military service).

While the fine print of free tuition looks onerous to some advocates, to other observers, it’s simply a fiscal and political reality, at least for now.

“States are trying to figure out how to pay for these programs, so they’re adding cost-containment measures,” says Jen Mishory, a senior fellow in the Washington, D.C., office of The Century Foundation, which seeks to reduce inequality. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Information about scholarships on display in May at the North Academic Center at the City College of New York. The school is one of many in New York State whose students are using the Excelsior Scholarship. So far, 20,000 students have received Excelsior – with the state budgeting $92.4 million for the 2018-19 school year.

The Education Trust favors plans like Oklahoma’s and Indiana’s. They are limited to lower-income families, but instead of just covering tuition that’s not paid for by other aid, their scholarships can be layered on top of other funds to cover some additional expenses – such as books or room and board – that otherwise might prove a barrier.

That’s important because it directs more assistance to those who need it most, Ms. Jones says. “Universal” plans that include middle-class families are often touted as easier sells politically, but some state programs that target low-income students have survived and thrived, even as lawmakers cut other higher education spending, she notes. 

Free vs. debt-free

Even for students who get free tuition, room and board can add up to tens of thousands of dollars. That’s one reason some Democrats want to go beyond free tuition and offer ways for students to avoid debt, or even wipe out already accumulated debt – as presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts recently proposed

Voters are receptive to these ideas. When asked if they support raising taxes on the wealthiest to make public colleges tuition-free, 55 percent said yes; 56 percent support wiping out up to $50,000 in student debt for those making under $100,000, according to a May Politico/Morning Consult poll.

Excelsior and other scholarships cover Brenden Bixby’s tuition, but he’s taking out loans for room and board at SUNY Cobleskill, which averages about $13,000 a year.

Right out of high school, Mr. Bixby could have worked full time on the apple orchard that his father manages in Poughkeepsie, New York. “I really wanted to get a degree just to have behind me, because nowadays you can’t get anything without a degree,” he says.

He chose Cobleskill in rural central New York, about two hours from home, because it offers an environmental management major – and great spots to go fly fishing.

Halfway through college, Mr. Bixby doesn’t know exactly how much he’s borrowed. “I try not to think about it too much just because I don’t want it to bring me down,” he says. “I need to focus on getting good grades because I will come out with a better job, and that job will make it way easier to pay for over time.”

At CCNY, Mr. Ahmed says he doesn’t take his freedom from financial concerns for granted. “It’s a huge opportunity for kids like me,” he says, ”because it gives us more time to actually do things that we love,” which in his case is coding. 

His older cousins had to juggle work and college to help get the extended family established in the U.S. Now he hopes his three younger siblings can take advantage of the easier path he’s found. But he also hopes the states and the federal government can do more to make college affordable. “I feel like education shouldn’t have a huge price to it, where it’s like selling your life just to learn something,” he says. “Some people, they’re not able to make as much as others, but they still want to give their child the best education that they can receive.”

He’s applied for a leadership and public service fellowship next year. He’s looking forward to the internships that will bring, and can someday envision turning his love for computer science into a project that will make a positive difference for many people. “I always wanted to do something that will give back to the community,” he says before heading up the wide slate-gray stairs and disappearing into the massive North Academic Center for a class on writing for engineers. 

Despite the challenges she’s faced, Ms. Aguilar, too, is determined to use her experience to help others. She counsels students at her former community college, telling them, “This is where I went wrong; this is where you could go right,” she says.

All of them want to show their parents that the sacrifices to enable them to attend college will bear fruit.

“Sometimes it was so easy to say, ‘Never mind, I quit. ... It’s fine to just do a high school degree,’” Ms. Aguilar says. But then she’d think about her mother’s hopes: “She wants something more.”

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More resources 

For more information on a variety of college promise plans and the features that policymakers track as they consider what works best for access and equity, see the following resources:

The College Promise Campaign, which will be coming out with a searchable national database of local and state programs soon:

The Education Trust framework:

A report from The Century Foundation:

An explainer about the difference between free college and debt-free college plans from the Education Commission of the States:

Information about college promise pilots designed for adult students in states ranging from Maine to Hawaii, from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association:

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