Which Strings Will States Attach to Free College Programs?

There is plenty of uncertainty about exactly how the upcoming midterm elections (enough nasty campaign ads already, everyone!) will shake out at the state and federal levels. Regardless of the outcomes, the idea of tuition-free college will continue to be discussed across both conservative and liberal states. But one thing is becoming clear: states are exploring a range of restrictions as they begin to adopt programs. In this post, I discuss some of the restrictions in today’s programs (see this Education Trust report for a more thorough treatment from an advocacy perspective) and some of the restrictions that I would not be surprised to see going forward.

Currently, there are four types of restrictions that exist across many current and proposed programs. The first one is the type of institution that students can attend. Most tuition-free college programs cover community colleges only due to the higher price tag of covering four-year colleges. (New York’s Excelsior program skirts this somewhat by not covering fees, which are substantial in the state.)

The second restriction is based on family income, since the last-dollar nature of tuition-free college programs means that programs become much more expensive up the income distribution. New Jersey’s new program, which covers tuition and fees at 13 of the state’s 19 community colleges, set an income cutoff of $45,000 per year to stretch limited state funds. But the state set up an income cap that low to allow for two other common restrictions (the age of the student and enrollment intensity) not to apply there. Other states, however, limit their programs to full-time students straight out of high school (and this is also common for standard grant aid programs).

Two other restrictions have popped up in a small number of states, and I would not be surprised to see them expand to other states that are considering tuition-free college programs. The programs in New York and Rhode Island require students to stay in state after college for a number of years or the grant converts into a loan (the dreaded “groan” in financial aid lingo). A few other states, such as Kentucky, have discussed limiting tuition-free programs to certain high-demand majors to better meet state workforce needs. This is similar to how some states provide additional money in their performance-based funding systems for each STEM major who graduates.

The intersection of the power of the phrase “free college” and concerns about the state’s return on investment is likely to result in even more restrictions appearing in states’ new programs. West Virginia saw a proposed program pass the state Senate (but see no action in the House) in 2018 that would have included both a residency requirement and a drug test requirement—something that does not apply to other types of financial aid the state gives. Students would have had to pay for the drug test, which would have kept down the price tag.

While I was on a panel on free college at the Brookings Institution earlier this fall, one idea came to my mind during the discussion. I said that I would not be surprised to see legislators propose that free college come with a clawback provision that pulls the money back if a student does not graduate within a certain number of years. This would be an incredibly painful provision for students who do not finish college for a variety of reasons, but it would be popular among budget hawks. States are also likely to set high initial academic requirements in the future (such as high school grades and ACT/SAT scores), essentially turning existing merit aid programs into new “free college” programs.

The 2019 legislative season is likely to bring dozens of free college proposals of various types across states, even as higher education policy gridlock remains likely in Washington. My request for states is that they be open to having their programs, particularly those with new restrictions, be evaluated by researchers so they can be improved going forward as needed.