“Free College:” Here to Stay?

This post originally appeared on www.tcf.org

By Jen Mishory | July 12, 2018

Free college, or “Promise” programs—a model of student aid that covers at least full tuition costs for a subset of a given state’s residents—have received a significant boost in the past few years. A central question has been whether the model benefits from more consistent political support over time as compared to other forms of financial aid or other higher education spending. So how have Promise programs fared in retaining political support over time, and what can we learn from past experience?

Nineteen states structure at least one statewide student aid program as a Promise program; among other arguments as to their merits, proponents of Promise programs make the case that both “universal” and “free” are transformative design features when it comes to fiscal sustainability: with more beneficiaries, a clear message, and—at times—more middle class and upper-income participation, this form of financial aid is more likely to sustain political support over time. Observers often point to large-scale social programs as supporting evidence, but rarely look to existing higher education policies. Yet several states have run free college programs for many years prior to the recent upsurge in Promise program popularity, and the level of their resiliency during economic downturns can provide important lessons for overall aid sustainability and future financial aid design.

In order to explore whether a “free college” design correlates with budgetary staying power, I identified six statewide free college programs in existence during what would have been the greatest test of fiscal sustainability in recent decades: the Great Recession…

Read the full report on The Century Foundation website here.

Jen Mishory is a Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation.

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