an illustration of a figure standing at a crossroads, the signs pointing toward "debt" in one direction and "free" in the other
Alicia Tatone

America Wakes Up From Its Dream of Free College

A flurry of state and local programs to cover students’ tuition and attention by top politicians made a national program seem possible. Then Trump won.

Classrooms full of crying students. That’s how the scene is often described. In November 2005, at Kalamazoo Central High School in Michigan, every classroom was full of teary-eyed students—jubilant, but teary-eyed.

They had good reason to be happy. The vice principal had just announced over the P.A. system that anonymous benefactors would be paying the students’ college tuition—all of the students across the entire school district, from kindergarten to high school, in perpetuity. Starting in 2006 and continuing until this day, the students have taken part in a social experiment of sorts.

The school district saw results: Its enrollments jumped, and so too did the number of teachers in the district. The district was able to build new schools for the first time since the 1970s. The offer brought change not just to Kalamazoo schools, but to the whole city. Businesses came to the area, and with them workers anxious for their children to get free tuition. These families would still have to pay room and board and other college fees on their own, but to have tuition covered surely alleviated at least some of their fears, and reduced the likelihood of these kids having to take on a lifetime burden of student debt.

It was the beginning of a wave. As the college-affordability crisis reaches a fever pitch, and students have to take out more and more loans to obtain what is becoming to be seen more as a necessary credential, some leaders have stepped in to pick up some of the slack. There are more than 350 local and state college-promise programs scattered across the country—California, for example, has 43—many of which are modeled after the Kalamazoo Promise program. Some are funded by the government, others, like Kalamazoo, through philanthropy. And the offerings tend to have the same goal: increase college-attainment rates, which in turn provides an economic bump to the area.

Tennessee launched the Tennessee Promise—a statewide program offering high-school seniors the opportunity to go to any of the state’s community colleges tuition free—in 2014. The City of Chicago also announced a tuition-free community-college program that year. Meanwhile, researchers were busily studying the effectiveness of such programs. “Free college” looked doable on a larger scale. Perhaps, the thought went, the federal government could use its financial muscle to incentivize states to adopt the program. Even if states couldn’t pay for four years of college for every student, just covering two years would be a significant benefit—and one report from 2014 showed that free two-year programs in all 50 states could be funded using federal financial-aid resources that were already readily available. Many two-year free-college proposals would apply only to two-year associate’s degrees, while some would also cover two years of tuition for students pursuing four-year degrees.

The free-college movement had momentum, though it was an uphill sort, the kind that needs prodding and support to keep going. And for a time, it received plenty—from advocates, members of Congress, and even the president. By January 2015, tuition-free college was a significant part of higher-education-policy discussions when then-President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address.

Americans should be able to upgrade their skills affordably, Obama argued. Forty percent of American college students attended community college, he pointed out, suggesting that that was the place to start with free tuition. He called out two places—one close to his home, another in the deep-red South—that he thought were examples of the achievable excellence he was talking about. “Tennessee, a state with Republican leadership, and Chicago, a city with Democratic leadership, are showing that free community college is possible,” Obama told lawmakers and those gathered on Capitol Hill. “I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today.” It was a noble goal. Two years of college for free. It wasn’t exactly the Kalamazoo Promise, but it was ambitious.

As Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor at Seton Hall University, put it, “The Obama administration’s proposals really thrust [free college] into the national spotlight.” Even though the plans the administration laid out in its higher-education platform had no chance of becoming law, he told me—primarily because Congress was not as supportive of the idea as the president was—they still received a flood of attention.

The free-college snowball kept gaining mass. After all, it was election season. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont announced that he would be introducing legislation to make college tuition free for all, so did Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. There were debates where tuition-free college was a primary point of contention between Sanders and Hillary Clinton—who originally argued that she believed in “affordable college” but not “free college.” Later in the campaign, she changed her tune, announcing a proposal to eliminate tuition at public colleges for families making less than $125,000 annually.

Free college became a litmus test for liberals. And when Clinton won the Democratic nomination for president, progressives applauded Sanders for pushing her to the left on the issue. But there was a voice conspicuously missing from the conversation about free college: Donald Trump.

The Republican nominee’s campaign was light on specifics about higher education. But in May 2016, Inside Higher Ed spoke with Sam Clovis, a former co-chair of the Trump campaign, about the candidate’s higher-education platform. Would Trump, they asked, support free college? The answer, Clovis said, would be “unequivocally no.”

That didn’t matter too much, many thought, because of how heavily favored Clinton was to win the presidency. A national program for free college—at least for some students—still seemed possible. And then Trump won.

Promise programs are a little more complicated now than they were in 2005. And “free college” has become an inaccurate catchall term for all kinds of plans intended to make college more affordable, if not literally free. But there are substantial differences between the many kinds of plans at the local, state, and federal levels—the ones that exist, and the ones being proposed.

Tuition-free-college programs, for example, tend to be “last dollar in.” That means a state will cover the cost of tuition after grant aid—federal Pell grants and other financial aid that students don’t have to pay back—is applied. Unfortunately for many low-income students, though these programs do ease their burden considerably, “last dollar in” plans often mean they have to use their grant money for tuition, and can’t count on it for other costs associated with college such as books, fees, housing, and food. Most states that have adopted—or are proposing—some form of “free college” programs are using tuition-free models.

“To some extent, it’s almost the new way to do financial aid in some states,” Kelchen told me. As opposed to doling out money through merit aid, the kind where the amount of money a student receives is based on things like their grade point average and SAT score, he said, as some states did in the 1990s and 2000s, states are shifting to more need-based aid, or implementing programs to make sure that tuition is covered.

The other popular model, though less frequently practiced, is debt-free college. Advocates for expanding college access have argued that debt free is preferable because it addresses the extra expenses associated with college. But the extra aid for students, of course, has to be paid for somehow.

Trump’s victory brought with it a strategy shift for free-college advocates—as hopes for a national tuition- or debt-free college plan grew dim. “You saw that [free college] was not going to happen on the national level anytime soon,” Kim Dancy, a policy analyst at New America, a left-leaning think tank, told me. Republicans controlled the House, Senate, and White House, and free college wasn’t necessarily a galvanizing issue for them —particularly as distrust of higher education as an institution grew on the right. So, she said, advocates turned their attention to the states. “We focused more on the state level and started looking at what different states are doing that is good and well thought-out.”

One of those states, of course, was Tennessee. The state’s tuition-free model had become the standard for what it looked like for a state to do free college well—especially after the state began extending the tuition-free college offer to adult and returning students in addition to recent high-school graduates this year.

But the disadvantage of focusing on state programs is that states simply have less money. “Doing it at the state level is uniquely challenging just because there are much more severe budgetary constraints,” Dancy told me. That means there are limitations on the amount of money they can—and are willing to—spend on free-college programs. But it also means that states put restrictions on programs to keep costs down, including limiting the tuition-free program to coursework at community colleges; only allowing students to study certain subjects; or requiring students to live and work in the state for several years after the program is complete. And then there are sometimes eligibility requirements on the front end. Some states only offer free tuition to recent high-school graduates with a certain GPA; or they may mandate a drug test.

It’s no secret that state funding for higher education is drying up. And when states have to make budget cuts, higher education will likely feel it before K–12 schools do, and before other social programs such as Medicare. Many of the tuition-free-college plans in states are not tied to mandatory state spending—instead, they are discretionary, and can change from year to year. The dangerous cocktail of low and uncertain funding can lead to terrible consequences for students. Oregon, which made tuition free at community colleges in 2016, for example, could not fully fund its program in 2017, meaning that some qualified students who were eligible for free tuition were denied it.

State tuition-free and debt-free programs are immensely helpful to some families—and are helping students pay for an education that is becoming more necessary for many careers—but they aren’t putting college within reach for everyone. Not yet. And advocates don’t want to miss the opportunity to get it right before it’s too late.

“There’s momentum right now around college affordability and a lot of that is driven by middle-class students and—to some extent—wealthier students, as well, who are increasingly struggling to keep up with the cost of college,” Dancy told me. “And that is creating this window of opportunity to fix the system. But I worry that if we fix it in the wrong way, then we’re still going to leave a lot of people behind.”

Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act on July 2, 1862, in the midst of the Civil War. The act granted blocks of land that could be sold to fund universities to each state. The mission of those institutions: to train young people in “agriculture and mechanic arts.” The act laid the foundation for the public higher-education system we recognize today, and the resulting institutions are now staples of their home state, such as Purdue University, the University of Missouri, and the University of Minnesota.

But the colleges created by the Morrill Act, in most cases, excluded black students in the early decades of their existence—segregation was still the law of the land, and former Confederate states did not allow black students to attend the institutions. So the Morrill Act became a blessing to some, not all. Twenty-eight years later, that oversight was acknowledged and addressed. Benjamin Harrison signed a second Morrill Act into law in 1890, creating land-grant colleges that specifically served black students.

This is all to say that the United States has a history of well-intentioned, but imperfect, college-access programs. But history also shows that these programs can be improved and expanded, if there is the will to do so.

“We’re at a really critical time, and we can get this right at the beginning,” Tiffany Jones, the director of higher-education policy at Education Trust, told me. There are proposals on the table right now in states across the country. Two recent reports, one from the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), the other from the Education Trust, drill into what “getting it right at the beginning” looks like.

The Education Trust used an “equity driven” approach to critique the existing state tuition-free-college models and proposals as of 2018. They used eight criteria:

  1. Whether the programs cover living expenses
  2. Whether they cover fees
  3. Whether they cover the total cost of tuition for at least four years of college
  4. Whether they include bachelor’s-degree programs
  5. Whether adult students are eligible
  6. Whether repayment of aid is required under certain circumstances
  7. Whether there are GPA requirements
  8. Whether there are additional requirements to maintain eligibility

It found that the dozens of proposed—and currently enacted—programs across the country fail to meet all of the criteria. IHEP similarly found that current programs in Tennessee and New York were not benefiting low-income students as much as, perhaps, they should.

“We know policy makers have to make tough choices,” Jones told me, but she believes that low-income students should be top of mind when states and local governments are crafting tuition-free models, as opposed to an afterthought.

But, as Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education at Temple University, writes in her book Paying the Price, “low-income families are not alone—middle-class families are squeezed too, as the current system often expects more from them than they can give.”

Still, addressing college affordability, Mamie Voight, IHEP’s vice president of policy research, argues, is kind of like having multiple injuries. If someone has a broken leg, it’s probably best to get it stabilized before dealing with smaller cuts. The nicks and scrapes heal faster, but the parts of the student body that have been hit the hardest need the most attention.

Several advocates I spoke with argued that the only way to get enough aid for those who need it most is federal intervention. States would need to be incentivized in some way.

That’s where Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii believes he can help. In March, Schatz introduced a debt-free-community-college bill, and it was met by fanfare in the higher-education community. It even picked up some national steam, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer included the plan in a video highlighting the Democrats’ higher-education platform. The plan includes a dollar-to-dollar match for states from the federal government for two-year and four-year free-college programs. States would submit their proposals to the government, and the government would match the states’ financial commitment on all approved plans. This bill would reward the states that have already created free-college programs and incentivize those that haven’t to get on board.

The only problem: Democrats have little to no power on the Hill right now. So even well-crafted, well-intentioned bills come off as little more than virtue signals in this partisan Congress. Still, Schatz says, there’s a chance Democrats return to power after the 2018 election. And if they do, “we have decided that we want students to be able to afford college,” Schatz told me. And what I’m trying to do is make sure we have legislation to do just that.”

But until and unless there’s a blue wave, it’s all hypothetical. The bill does not have a reasonable shot at passing without a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate, and, potentially, a Democrat in the White House—and even then, all Democrats may not be on board, let alone Republicans. Democratic aides are working to convince lawmakers that debt-free college is an idea they should get behind.

The Kalamazoo promise was simple. Live here, go to school, and your tuition is paid for. But with scale comes complication. The idea of free college is still in its infancy—it took 28 years to get the Morrill Act right, and it’s only been 13 since the Kalamazoo Promise. But in the current political climate, the path forward is murky and winding, and that makes it hard for the movement to maintain the momentum it needs. The window of opportunity for nationwide tuition- or debt-free college is still ajar. The next couple of elections could close it completely or throw it wide open.

However, the idea of truly free college for everyone—a system where fundamental public education is no longer considered K–12 but K–16—appears out of the country’s grasp for now, and people have, for the most part, stopped reaching.