The Awkward Truth About ‘Free College’—It Isn’t Truly Free

Mar 18, 2021

In 2014, when Tennessee unveiled a statewide scholarship to cover tuition expenses at community colleges, the program was praised for making higher education possible for more people. It even inspired President Obama to pitch a similar federal program.

But as soon as more people showed up to campuses in 2015, Tennessee higher ed leaders discovered a problem: Students were surprised by the additional costs of going to college.

“‘Free college’ is not free,” explained Shanna Jackson, now president of Nashville State Community College, during a recent webinar. “It’s quite the shock to go and find out your textbook costs are $800 the first week of school.”

With the movement for no-tuition community college gaining momentum in more states and earning top billing in President Biden’s education agenda, experts in college access and affordability advise caution about using that potent four-letter word: f-r-e-e.

“The challenge in presenting a program as ‘free’ is it may cause people to underestimate the full cost of attendance,” said Carrie Welton, director of policy and advocacy at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, in an interview with EdSurge. “There are many expenses that go into the ability of a student to attend and be successful in college.”

And for low-income families concerned about scams, calling a college program “free” may even be a turn off—a promise that sounds too good to be true.

That suspicion is well-founded with regard to some no-tuition programs, where the fine print excludes students who could benefit most. Eliminating those barriers is important for programs to achieve their goals, Welton says.

So is better communication, she adds: “We need to be clear about what we mean by ‘free,’ and what is and isn’t included.”

Misleading Messages

In policy conversations and political speeches, the phrase “free college” is sometimes used as shorthand for the more accurate, but less punchy, phrase “free from tuition and fees.” It’s a nuance that leaves people confused about what, exactly, they have to pay for in a given program.

Some students hear “free” and take it literally. When recipients of the Tennessee Promise scholarship first arrived at community colleges, some didn’t understand that even though their tuition was free, they still had to find a way to pay for textbooks, transportation to class, child care and technology tools.

There’s no free-and-reduced lunch at college.
—Shanna Jackson

Those expenses can be big barriers to graduation. The cost of course materials alone can rival tuition rates at some community colleges, says Nathan Smith, an instructor of philosophy at Houston Community College and an advocate for low-cost textbooks. He’s seen students go to great lengths to avoid paying for books, sometimes to the detriment of their learning.

“These are out-of-pocket expenses that can’t be put on a payment plan,” Smith says. If a textbook costs $100 or $150, he adds, that can be a whole week’s budget for some students.

Additionally, some Tennessee Promise students struggle to afford their basic needs, like food and housing. Unlike in high school, Jackson says, “there’s no free-and-reduced lunch at college.”

Meanwhile, other people hear the word “free” and immediately distrust it. That’s the case in some immigrant communities, says Candy Marshall, president of TheDream.US, a national scholarship program for immigrant youth who lack citizenship documentation.

“It’s understandable. Undocumented families have so often been the victims of scams,” Marshall says. “They are rightfully skeptical when someone makes a promise that something is free.”

She recalls one scholarship recipient who called to say she could not enroll in college because her parents didn’t believe the opportunity was legitimate. Only after the organization asked a Spanish translator to converse in person with the student’s family did they come to accept that the offer was real.

For families like these to take advantage of "free college" programs, “it will definitely take some education to build the trust of the community,” Marshall says. “That’s why it’s so important that there aren’t these unintended requirements that make it not true.”

Free For Whom?

But requirements that function as barriers are common to many no-tuition programs and proposals. Several seemingly small details can have big consequences for which students can participate and whether they ultimately succeed in college.

Among these is whether programs require students to apply for government financial aid before dispersing additional tuition support. That’s the case with so-called “last-dollar” plans, like the one in Tennessee, which helps students pay only for tuition that’s not covered by Pell grants, scholarships and other aid. In contrast, “first-dollar” programs cover tuition up front, and their rewards don’t change if students also receive other kinds of financial support.

Students who lack citizenship documentation—sometimes called “Dreamers”—may be excluded from last-dollar programs, Marshall says.

“Some require you to apply for the FAFSA, which Dreamers cannot do,” she says. “In many states, Dreamers can’t get state aid.”

Another line of fine print may limit eligibility to full-time students. Yet many students in community colleges study part-time to juggle work, or other obligations, and their studies.

Although associate degrees are sometimes called “two-year degrees,” very few students who earn them do so within two academic years, according to the 2016 “Time to Degree” report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The study found that only 7 percent of 2014-2015 associate degree recipients completed programs in that time frame, and that the majority took at least four years of enrollment.

Students who do shift to full-time studies to qualify for no-tuition programs can end up losing key income from lost work.

“There is a very real cost for students in urban and rural areas who have to cut back on hours of work to be successful,” Jackson says. “There’s something they have to give up, even when it’s free, to come to college.”

No-tuition programs could help such students “potentially work fewer hours and be more dedicated in their studies,” Marshall says—but only if programs are designed around their needs.

Measuring Success

Data suggest that misleading messages and restrictive policies can indeed hold back some of the very people whom no-tuition programs are intended to help. Results from Tennessee Promise show worse completion outcomes for low-income and minority students, Jackson says. For example, in the 2017 cohort, 26 percent of white participants graduated on time, compared to only 9 percent of Black participants.

Closing this kind of equity gap will require creating more holistic student support in community colleges, according to Jackson, as well as in the K-12 systems that prepare students for higher education.

“Promise increased access for first-generation, low-income, academically unprepared minority students,” she says. “So therefore, institutions must learn how to serve those students better.”

That may mean reducing textbook costs, a goal that some states are tackling with laws and some institutions are addressing by making course material prices more transparent. And some community colleges have created “Z-Degrees,” which are associate-degree pathways with courses that assign only no-cost open educational resources instead of traditional (and often pricey) textbooks.

It may also mean helping students afford meals and shelter. Community colleges are experimenting with campus food pantries and new ways to disperse emergency financial aid. Institutions also should help students get connected to public benefit programs, Welton says.

“If someone can’t meet their basic needs for food and housing, they’re unlikely to consider post-secondary as an option,” she says. “Or if they are in college, it’s much harder to focus on their studies and be successful.”

Ultimately, advocates say, the success of a “free” college program should be measured not only by who signs up, but by who graduates.

“Don’t just think about access and enrollment,” Jackson says. “Completion, not access, is the goal.”


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