Winter 2020

Getting Free College Right


In my new book, The Path to Free College: In Pursuit of Equity, Access, and Prosperity, I trace the evolution of the free-college movement from the announcement of the Kalamazoo Promise in 2005, through the creation of close to 200 community- and institution-based free- college programs nationwide and tuition-free college initiatives in more than a dozen states. I also examine national free-college proposals, from President Barack Obama’s America’s College Promise proposal of 2015 to Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2017 College for All legislation. Throughout, I disentangle three motivations for free college — promoting college affordability in a climate of skyrocketing prices, enhancing racial and economic equity in college-going and completion, and strengthening the workforce. While making an argument in favor of the public benefits of investing in affordable higher education, I also show how the design of free-college programs needs to be more tightly connected to these stakeholder goals.

The first of the administration’s higher ed policies are included in its American Families Plan, introduced on April 28, 2021. The key higher ed provisions of the plan are universal, tuition-free community college through a federal-state partnership in which the federal government bears most of the costs; two years of tuition coverage for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs); a roughly 20 percent increase Pell grants; and funding for community colleges to invest in evidence-based strategies to boost degree and credential attainment.

Which of these promises will become policy — and when — depends on Biden-Harris administration decisions about where to invest political capital in light of narrow Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress? Most likely for quick action are the components of the higher education platform that connect to COVID-19 recovery, those that will have the greatest impact on racial and economic equity, and those that can draw bipartisan support. Universal, tuition-free community college checks all of these boxes.

Tuition-free community college supports employment and economic recovery by providing a tuition-free path to Associate degrees and shorter-term credentials. It can generate quick returns in the form of degrees and credentials to allow people to find new and better jobs. It can also facilitate retraining for new opportunities, as the recently enacted Michigan Reconnect program for adults seeks to do. And, at least at the state level, such initiatives have drawn bipartisan support. Focusing on the community college sector also promotes equity by lowering financial and informational barriers to higher ed institutions that serve many first-generation and low- income collegegoers.


As the Biden-Harris Administration and congressional leaders move forward with their free-college plans, they should draw on lessons learned from more than a decade of tuition-free college experimentation at the local and state level. Research is clear on what a free-college program that promotes both equity and workforce development should look like. In short, it should be simple in structure, easy to access, and universal (available to all, rather than targeted by income or academic merit). The most effective programs also will provide new financial resources to students and include provisions for student support and navigation.


Free-college programs are intended not just to benefit individual students but also to transform the systems in which those students learn — from K-12 school districts to post-secondary institutions to community supports for education. In order to achieve these transformational effects, free-college programs must be widely used, and for that to occur they must be easy to explain and access. A free-college Promise that comes with pages of fine print or a complex application system will have less of an impact — on both individuals and systems — than one that is simpler and more easily understood. The application for the Kalamazoo Promise is only a page long, meaning that students who otherwise might be deterred by a cumbersome application process can easily participate. In Tennessee, consistent public messaging about the Tennessee Promise and the embedding of the FAFSA application process as one step along the Tennessee Promise pathway has led to 90 percent of seniors at public high schools beginning the application process, whether they eventually use the funding or not. A simple message about college affordability delivered early and often through multiple channels, can bring many people onto a higher ed path, and it has the ancillary benefit of increasing Pell grant uptake (Tennessee now leads the states in FAFSA filing rates).


There is a longstanding debate in the policy world over whether social benefits should be targeted toward those who need them most or made universally available. There are clear tradeoffs between the two approaches: universal programs are easier to administer, more likely to reach all segments of the eligible population and less like to carry the stigma of policies directed toward the poor. Targeted programs, on the other hand, are usually considered more efficient in that they distribute scarce resources to a population that needs or deserves them the most. In the free-college world, the advantages of universality are powerful — universal free-college programs are easier to explain and administer and have stronger impacts than more narrowly targeted programs.

For example, a universal scholarship program in a high-poverty school district is going to naturally serve mostly low-income students because of the makeup of the school district. A scholarship program that focuses on two-year or shorter degrees will similarly have limited benefits for higher-income individuals since they rarely attend the institutions granting these degrees. It is also possible to add elements of targeting within universal programs to better support students who need extra help — in Kalamazoo, for example, almost every student graduating from high school is eligible, but those who attend the local community college automatically receive coaching services to help support their success.


In a perfect world, free college would be provided on a first-dollar basis — that is, before other forms of financial aid, allowing lower-income students to retain use of their federal financial aid to help cover living expenses (these are often the biggest barrier to college attendance). In the real world, almost all free-college programs are last- dollar, requiring students to use their Pell grants before a Promise scholarship is applied to fill any gaps. A simple, clear message of college affordability benefits low-income students even if scholarships are last dollar, but it is unrealistic to expect dramatic changes in college-going behavior without offering new financial resources.

It is critical that this idea be preserved in the final legislation. Substituting a student’s Pell grants for a free- college Promise — a common cost-saving measure in state Promise programs — will limit the number of students who are able to participate in the program and constrain the ability of lower-income students to manage their living expenses.


If a free-college program is to lead to degree or credential completion and thus represent a positive return on investment for recipients and taxpayers, first-generation and low-income students need to have access to additional supports. Opening the door to college through better affordability may lead students to enter, but those who lack knowledge of what the college experience entails may struggle once there. Help is needed at various stages. In Tennessee, a large-scale mentorship program organized by TN Achieves helps high-school seniors figure out their college-going path. Navigation resources are also available to adult learners through Tennessee Reconnect, helping to ensure that a “right fit” degree or credential program is chosen. The Detroit Promise Path offers high-touch coaching and small monetary incentives to low-income students attending two-year colleges, leading to higher rates of persistence and completion. The Biden plan recognizes the value of such efforts, committing to investing in “evidence-based strategies to strengthen completion and retention rates.”

The free-college program most likely to be enacted quickly is one that addresses employer concerns about a skilled workforce while speeding economic recovery from COVID-19. Fortunately, the same design features that serve these goals also enhance the equity impacts of a free-college program. While the more robust four-year free-college plan embraced by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party should not be abandoned, it is not surprising the administration’s first move is toward a universal, free community college program, tied together with additional investments in high-quality pre-K education. If such a strategy is enacted, the US will be on its way to building an educational system that meets both equity and economic goals.

MICHELLE MILLER-ADAMS is a senior researcher at the W.E. Upjohn Institute and professor of political science at Grand Valley State University. She can be reached at miller-adams@ and via Twitter @mmilleradams.

Editor’s Note: This column is adapted with permission from the #RealCollege Blog hosted by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. Professor Miller-Adams book, The Path to Free College, is available from Harvard Education Publishing Group

Joomla! Debug Console


Profile Information

Memory Usage

Database Queries