What Does "Free" College Tuition Really Pay For?

By Brittany Lyte on 6 March 2017 0 comments

Free college tuition was a rallying cry for some candidates in the 2016 presidential election, and it's become a reality in several states (or soon will be). But is free tuition truly free?

Here's our rundown of who pays, along with a look at some of the hidden, unintended costs — monetary, societal, and otherwise. (See also: 6 Ways to Save on College Tuition)

1. Taxpayers Pick Up the Tab

Just three states — Minnesota, Oregon, and Kentucky — have free tuition programs in place, while the notion is being hotly debated by lawmakers in nearly a dozen other states. (The City of San Francisco recently announced free tuition at its community college.) All of these programs have small differences, but there's lots of commonality. First, all of the "free" tuition programs that have been proposed or are currently in place seek to shift the burden of payment from the student to the taxpayer. The idea is that the cost of an education is often prohibitive for individual students to bear, while state and federal taxpayers can collectively foot the bill without emptying their wallets.

Rhode Island's free tuition program proposal, for example, has an estimated price tag of $30 million — or less than half of 1% of the Rhode Island state budget. The program would annually benefit an estimated 8,000 resident students who enroll in a two-year program at any of the state's public colleges. Every Rhode Island resident would be eligible, regardless of income or academic ability.

Cost estimates to institute free tuition programs such as the one being shopped around by Rhode Island lawmakers are relatively low, proponents say, because most of them are "last dollar" scholarships. This means that the program covers the gap a student has in his or her tuition and mandatory fees bill after subtracting federal funding and other financial aid grants. Such is the case for programs in place in Oregon and Minnesota, as well as those proposed in Rhode Island and New York.

2. Many Programs Are Limited to Community College or Trade School

Free tuition programs only apply to public schools, and many of them — including programs implemented or under consideration in Oregon, Maryland, Minnesota, and Massachusetts — further limit eligibility to students who plan to enroll in community colleges or trade schools.

Minnesota's free tuition pilot program, for example, covers tuition for students who plan to complete their schooling or training in a high-demand field within one or two years. The $5 million scholarship program applies to about 1,200 fields, ranging from cosmetology to poultry production, at the state's 30 community and technical colleges. It targets middle class students whose families earn $90,000 or less annually and who are not eligible for already existing federal and state grants that aim to help lower income students.

For students whose sights are set on a four-year degree from a four-year school, very few of the free tuition programs offer much help. Rhode Island will cover tuition at any public school, including four-year institutions — but only for up to two years. New York's free tuition proposal, on the other hand, is fairly unique in that it would fund four-year programs at the 64 State University of New York (SUNY) and 23 City University of New York (CUNY) colleges.

3. Tuition Is Only a Fraction of the Cost of Going to College

Free tuition is a wonderful benefit, but it certainly doesn't cancel out the cost of college attendance. In fact, it's only a fraction of the larger price tag attached to any college education.

At Maryland's Howard Community College, where a free tuition program for students at community colleges or trade schools is under consideration, the average cost of in-state tuition and fees is $5,626. That's less than a quarter of the total cost of attendance. In addition to tuition, students pay an average of $12,195 for room and board, $1,800 for books and supplies, and $2,532 for other expenses, such as transportation.

In New York, students would similarly be responsible for covering their own room and board, books, and other living expenses. According to a TIME magazine analysis, even if the state of New York covers the $6,470 SUNY tuition, a student would still need to come up with about $14,500 a year for other college expenses.

A rare exception is Washington State, where lawmakers are considering a program that would provide a tuition and mandatory fee waiver to resident students attending in-state community and technical colleges, plus one other perk: All students from families with an income less than 70% of the state median family income would also receive a stipend of up to $1,500 for books and other education-related expenses.

4. Free Tuition Programs Only Aid Resident Students

If your state doesn't have a free tuition program, you won't be able to mooch off one that does. All of the free tuition programs thus far apply only to in-state residents who choose to further their education within that state's borders.

5. Where Academic Eligibility Bars Are in Place, Minority, Low-Income Students Could Get Left Behind

Some free tuition programs, such as the one launched in Oregon in 2016, require students to achieve certain academic standards in order to be eligible for scholarship money. But there is evidence that reserving scholarship money for students of higher aptitudes can serve to "widen the gap in college attendance between blacks and whites and between those from low- and high-income families," according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

For example, a program launched in Georgia in 1993 with the aim of offering college scholarships to high school graduates who met certain academic requirements succeeded in increasing the state's college attendance rate by at least 7%. But researchers later found that most of that increase was represented by white, middle-class students. That's because when college becomes free or more affordable to students who meet and maintain certain academic markers, research shows that more white, middle-class students benefit because they are proportionately better able to meet those standards. It's an inconvenient truth: Sometimes scholarship money aimed at aiding low-income and minority students instead leaves them even farther behind.

6. Some Experts Wonder if Free Tuition Actually Leads to More College Degrees

Free tuition for high school graduates, regardless of income or aptitude, is the product of the Tennessee Promise, a program that covers community college or technical school tuition, but leaves more than one-third of students saddled with $5,000 to $10,000 in fees for books, rent, and living expenses. For taxpayers, the net cost of the program for the 2015–2016 school year was $10.6 million.

The Tennessee Promise has so far been successful in boosting college enrollment by 10%, but some experts wonder whether that boost will translate to higher college graduation rates. "What you see is a lot of students enrolling who might not otherwise enroll. But you see really low success rates, and things like students going part-time because they can't afford the books," Debbie Cochrane, the research director at The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), told The Atlantic.

If more students aren't attaining college degrees, will the Tennessee Promise be worth the strain on the state budget? That's the question academics and researchers are working to uncover.

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