Free college didn’t die with federal inaction. It moved.

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When first lady Jill Biden stood before attendees at the Community College National Legislative Summit in February to tell them that a proposal for a federal free community college program was dead, the mood was somber. 

“​​Like you, I was disappointed. Because, like you, these aren’t just bills or budgets to me, to you, right? We know what they mean for real people, for our students,” she said. “It was a real lesson in human nature that some people just don’t get that.”

Even though a federal initiative is off the table, energy for free college didn’t die that day. It’s been shifting and transforming, finding new life at the state and local levels.

In recent months, a slew of initiatives covering tuition and other educational expenses have been proposed and enacted for certificate, two-year and four-year programs. Those include broad statewide programs, like one approved in New Mexico that will essentially make public college tuition free for almost any resident without a degree, but also smaller and more targeted projects.

Six years ago, there were about 53 state and local “promise programs,” which cover tuition costs for eligible students, said Rosye Cloud, senior leader at College Promise, a nonprofit that supports those programs. Now there are about 350, with eight launched in the last three months.

The current moment is likely the result of two concurrent forces, said Morley Winograd, president of the Campaign for Free College Tuition. One of those is the growth of public coffers due to the American Rescue Plan federal relief package — which sent $195 billion in fiscal recovery funding to state governments. The other is a constrained labor market that has lawmakers thinking seriously about adult education, he said.

Those factors “combined to create a moment where people could begin to do things they hadn’t contemplated doing before,” he said.

Most of the programs are real investments, as opposed to rebranding existing student financial aid, Winograd said. However, many significantly restrict eligibility. New York’s Excelsior Scholarship, which dates back to 2017, is only available to students with a household income up to $125,000, and recipients must stay in New York for as many years as they received the award.

Many programs have GPA and credit-hour requirements. Those often attempt to save funding, but they can dampen potential enrollment increases that colleges could see from the initiatives.

“The hope is that this growth in enrollment will grow revenues, especially at the community colleges where there’s been declining enrollment.”

Jim Hundrieser

Vice president for consulting and business development, National Association of College and University Business Officers

And enrollment growth is the way that free college programs are most likely to affect institutional budgets, said Jim Hundrieser, vice president for consulting and business development at the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

“The hope is that this growth in enrollment will grow revenues, especially at the community colleges where there’s been declining enrollment for the better part of the last three to five years, depending on what state you’re in,” he said.

That’s the hope in Maine, where Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, has proposed a $20 million investment to cover community college tuition for students whose high school education was affected by the pandemic. David Daigler, president of Maine’s community college system, supports the proposal.

“Our enrollments with traditional high school and college students were the lowest they’ve been in more than a decade,” he said. “The primary effect that we’re looking for is to educate these young students.”

There is no such thing as a free lunch

Expected enrollment gains don’t always come to fruition, Hundrieser said. The Rhode Island Promise program, for example, began in 2017. But the community college system has seen mostly flat enrollment over the past few years, he said. Colleges taking part in any program will also have the administrative burden of making sure students are meeting their requirements.

But free college programs can also have potential impacts on the ones they don’t include. Winograd noted some concern exists that free community college programs could incentivize students to attend two-year colleges instead of four-year universities.

There is some evidence of that, but any resulting enrollment declines at four-year public institutions weren’t large enough to endanger them financially, he said. He cautioned the findings came before the pandemic, which may have changed many student behaviors.

“Private colleges and universities who lack an identifiable brand or unique program have in fact been hurt.”

Morley Winograd

President, Campaign for Free College Tuition

The strongest effects on other institutions may be outside of the public systems.

“Private colleges and universities who lack an identifiable brand or unique program have in fact been hurt. Four-year private liberal arts colleges that don’t have a stream of research funding or other sources of income such as a huge endowment have been hurt as states have introduced free tuition,” Winograd said. “But they were hurting before that.”

Colleges and universities in some cases have chosen not to take part in state programs. In contrast to Republican opposition in Congress, state efforts have been fairly bipartisan. In North Carolina, some college leaders originally balked at partaking in a Republican-led program limiting tuition at some colleges to $500 per semester, believing it would bankrupt their institutions. They worried the state would not make up for lost tuition revenue. So far, though, the state has made good on its promise to backstop the lower tuition costs.

Intended and unintended consequences

Now that programs have shown little deleterious effect on participating institutions, college leaders have more recently been supportive. Many are quickly trying to prepare for the effects on operations like finances and admissions.

Even in cases where a new program is unlikely to significantly affect enrollment, say in a four-year institution with fixed capacity, it’s important to think about how it may affect yield in admissions. That’s the situation at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, said Courtney McAnuff, vice chancellor for enrollment management at the public institution in New Jersey.

“The president and the chancellor view this as a priority to expand access.”

Courtney McAnuff

Vice chancellor for enrollment management, Rutgers University at New Brunswick

The flagship campus recently launched the Scarlet Guarantee, a program to make tuition free for students with household incomes under $65,000 and decrease tuition costs for those with an income under $100,000. The campus expects to see some additional applications, McAnuff said, but will not be admitting many additional students. Last year, the first-year class totaled 7,100 students.

The admissions department is already seeing the program affect how many students accept admission offers.

“We’re monitoring those numbers very carefully and have created a large waitlist so we can understand just how many students are accepting our offers,” McAnuff said.

The program may also change the makeup of the university’s students, with more low-income families willing to send their children to the state flagship. The new program requires that students take 30 credits per year, meaning they will likely graduate in four years and will not run out of grant eligibility in their final years. Administrators are increasing student support resources like tutoring and monitoring to be sure students can stay on track. If students can graduate more quickly, that also increases the university’s enrollment capacity, and in turn, potential revenue.

About $10 million of the budget for the program is new state funding, McAnuff said, but nearly $20 million is a reallocation of Rutgers money. The university’s annual budget totals about $5 billion.

“It is a matter of priorities,” he said. “And the president and the chancellor view this as a priority to expand access.”

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