Report Examines Implications of ‘Free College’ Programs, Offers Alternative Approaches

free college report coverCIC’s new research report explores one of the most discussed issues in higher education: “free college.” Various free college proposals have been passionately advanced by political candidates and policymakers in recent years. Four states have implemented tuition-free college programs, and these early initiatives are now yielding valuable data.

The report, State “Free College” Programs: Implications for States and Independent Higher Education and Alternate Policy Approaches, analyzes the free college models adopted in New York, Tennessee, Oregon, and Washington. The authors examine college participation, degree attainment, costs to families, and costs to states to determine whether current free college models are actually realizing the goal of increased degree completion at reduced cost.

This is the third in a series of research reports commissioned by CIC and written by William Zumeta, professor of public policy and higher education at the University of Washington, and Nick Huntington-Klein, assistant professor of economics at California State University, Fullerton [now assistant professor of economics at Seattle University]. The previous reports in the series include Utilizing Independent Colleges and Universities to Fulfill States’ College Degree Attainment Goals (2017) and The Cost-Effectiveness of Undergraduate Education at Private Nondoctoral Colleges and Universities (2015).

The authors find that the free college initiatives frequently promoted may not effectively meet their stated goals. Initiatives in two states direct support exclusively to students in public two-year colleges. Only Washington State’s approach supports a full range of student choice by allowing low-income students to choose between two-year and four-year institutions in either the public or private sectors. In fact, projection models suggest that state grant programs that allow students to use tuition grants at the institution of their choice, including independent colleges and universities, yield better, more cost-effective results.

Zumeta and Huntington-Klein further suggest alternatives that take advantage of independent sector capacity and higher graduation rates to produce additional degrees at lower costs to states. Building on their earlier work, the authors propose modest increases in aid to students who choose private or public colleges, resulting in increased degree completion and decreased state funding overall for higher education. In another approach, the authors outline possible designs for per-enrolled-student or per-degree-earned awards rather than student-aid-based approaches. Their modeling suggests that where state needs and the private sector’s capacity are well-matched, states can more efficiently subsidize degree attainment by utilizing private sector capacity.

The report concludes, “…several promising avenues are available to help states meet higher education needs efficiently and equitably while preserving student choice. All are likely to be superior to offering tuition-free college only to some in a single sector.”

CIC President Richard Ekman remarked, “The report will be informative for both policymakers and members of the public interested in the free college movement and its effects on American higher education. In addition, offering alternative models that promote student choice can benefit all citizens by lowering costs to taxpayers and increasing bachelor’s degree attainment.”

The full report and a brief research summary will be available on the CIC website by the end of August. CIC encourages member institutions to share this timely information with all who are interested in this issue.