Op-Ed: Free tuition isn’t the best way to improve access to college

Students walk between classes at Los Angeles City College in Los Angeles, Calif. on Sept. 28, 2016. LAUSD graduates get free tuition and books as part of the College Promise Initiative.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Many politicians today perceive the idea of free tuition as a winning strategy, and it’s easy to see why. Young people are more anxious than ever about getting a college education as a path to a more successful career, and college debt is on the rise. But, despite what the term implies, free tuition is not the best way to enable more students to afford a college education.

As state legislatures have reduced general funding for higher education, college costs have risen more swiftly than family income, especially at public colleges and universities. Rather than support more adequate funding for these schools, politicians have turned to giving the money directly to the students. It’s an instant win with families.

Several states have already introduced their own brand of “free college” and others are either actively considering bills or having conversations about the ramifications. Programs are wide ranging: The Tennessee Promise provides free tuition to community colleges. Georgia’s Hope Scholarship rewards students who achieve a 3.0 grade-point average in high school. California provides one free year of community college to all full-time students; a new bill would add a second year. Maryland will be doing the same at least in 2019. New York’s Excelsior Scholarship will provide free tuition to students whose families earn up to $125,000 in 2019.


By their nature, free tuition programs are stacked against low-income students.

Certainly, these programs will make college less expensive for many students, but they won’t do nearly as much for low-income students as they do for the middle class and even the well to do.

By their nature, free tuition programs are stacked against low-income students. The reason is that college costs include much more than tuition: Room and board, books, computers, transportation and other living expenses are often higher than the original tuition price. Middle-class and well-off students can afford those expenses much more easily than low-income students. Low-income students, unable to afford the basic costs of living during their college years, are less likely to take advantage of a state tuition-only grant to begin with because of the total costs they face, and if they do get one, they are at higher risk of dropping out for financial reasons.

A better way to increase graduation rates across the country would be to make free college truly free, or as close as possible, for those who really can’t afford it, and the way to do that is through a proven program: the Pell grant.

Born out of the federal Higher Education Act of 1965, Pell grants give low-income students money to help pay for college and related expenses. Students and families demonstrate need and the Pell program awards grants dependent on a student’s financial situation. The maximum award, however, is $6,095 per year. Even at in-state, public institutions this is far less than the full cost of attending college.

The free college movement should focus on expanding the Pell program to cover at least some living expenses.


Expanding Pell grants would address another problem with states’ free tuition programs. They tend to spend more money per middle-class student than low-income one. That’s because the programs are largely “last dollar” aid; in other words, after a student has received other aid, including Pell grants, the state adds just enough to pay off the rest of the tuition bill. Middle-class students are much less likely to have those other grants, so the state is left to pay more.

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Last year, the Institute for Higher Education Policy published a report that suggested free college programs in New York and Tennessee weren’t making college more affordable for low-income students because neither program allocated “scarce state funding to the students with the greatest need.” The study concluded that these programs instead “allocate limited funding to middle- and, in the case of Tennessee, high-income students.”

The U.S. Senate recently passed an appropriations bill that increases the individual Pell grant amount by $100. That doesn’t begin to address the affordability problem.

In an environment of competing priorities, collaboration is critical.We don’t have the resources to send the children of wealthy or even middle-class families to college. College and university leaders must come to the table with federal and state officials to help those who need it most.

“Free college” makes a great bumper sticker. But the nation’s young adults don’t need bumper stickers; they need practical solutions to the cost of a higher education.

Jeff Abernathy is president of Alma College in Alma, Mich.

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