If ‘Free College’ Sounds Too Good To Be True, That’s Because It Often Is

Cory Turner:

But is the idea pure fantasy?

More than a dozen states now offer grants, often called scholarships, promising to help qualifying students pay for some or all of their college education. In fact, that word, “promise,” shows up again and again in these programs’ official names: Nevada Promise, Oklahoma’s Promise, Oregon Promise, Tennessee Promise … you get the idea.

Sometimes referred to as “free college” programs, most are relatively new, sparked by the relentless rise in college costs and by a desire among state leaders to improve college access, especially for low-income students. Hundreds more free college programs have popped up at the local level, too. But a new review of 15 of these statewide programs, conducted by The Education Trust, finds that states vary wildly in how they define both “free” and “college.”

“I mean, I get paid to do this,” laughs Katie Berger, a senior analyst at the nonprofit advocacy group, “and it was very challenging for me to understand the nuances in a lot of these programs. … And if it’s hard for me to understand, I can’t imagine how challenging it is for low-income students and first-generation students to wrap their heads around this.”

To help measure and make sense of states’ free college efforts, Berger and The Education Trust used eight criteria, with a particular focus on equity. None of the programs managed a perfect score. Only one, in Washington, met seven of the criteria. Berger says that’s because every free college program is a complex balance of priorities and costs. “All of these choices represent trade-offs. There is no truly universal, college-is-completely-free-for-everyone-ever [program].”