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'Free College' Programs May Not Help Neediest Students

Students walk between classes on campus Brooklyn College, one of New York's public institutions, for which the Excelsior Scholarship covers tuition costs.
Students walk between classes on campus Brooklyn College, one of New York's public institutions, for which the Excelsior Scholarship covers tuition costs.
'Free College' Programs May Not Help Neediest Students
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The idea of free higher education is not a new one in some parts of the world.

But the idea has only recently increased in popularity in the United States as the cost of attending colleges and universities in the country has risen greatly.

In the last few years, several states have either launched or proposed programs offering very low to no cost higher education. However, two new studies suggest these programs are failing to serve the people who need them the most: people with little money.

Two programs that have recently received the most attention operate in New York and Tennessee. In 2014, Tennessee governor Bill Haslam created the Tennessee Promise program. This program covers tuition costs for anyone in the state who wants to attend one of Tennessee’s two-year community colleges.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced the creation of a similar program in his state, called the Excelsior Scholarship in 2017. It aims to cover the tuition at public institutions for residents whose yearly household income is below a given amount. That amount started at $100,000 in 2017. In 2019, New Yorkers with yearly household incomes below $125,000 can apply for the program.

Yet recent reports from two higher education research groups show serious problems with the design of such programs.

Researchers with the Institute for Higher Education Policy centered their study on the New York and Tennessee programs. The two programs are both need-based forms of financial aid. That means the less money students have, the more money they get. But the institute’s study found that the two programs share a quality researchers says harms low-income students. The programs are both designed to be forms of financial aid known as “last dollar.”

Last dollar programs cover the remaining tuition costs students face after they have paid what they can or made use of any other forms of financial aid. But, last dollar programs do not consider the difference in need between students of different income levels, says Mamie Voight. She is the vice president of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Voight notes that many low-income college students in the U.S. make use of other need-based aid programs, like the federal Pell grant program. And New York and Tennessee’s last dollar programs do not separate the amount of other aid a student is receiving from the money they already have.

So low-income New Yorkers or Tennesseans may appear to have more money than they actually do when they seek additional assistance from their state, Voight says. And a wealthier student will get more aid because they appear to have greater remaining costs.

For example, Voight's study found that before the Tennessee Promise program launched, the state’s lowest income students had, on average, over $7,000 in unmet need. And since the program’s launch, that need has still not been met. Meanwhile, students with more money have been receiving on average, about $1,500 from the program.

In this January 11, 2017 photo, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gives a speech about the Excelsior Scholarship at one of his state of the state addresses at State University of New York in Albany, New York.
In this January 11, 2017 photo, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gives a speech about the Excelsior Scholarship at one of his state of the state addresses at State University of New York in Albany, New York.

Voight says the problem is that poorer students have to use the Pell grants and other “first dollar” aid to cover just the costs of tuition. But fees and additional costs to higher education are not included in tuition. And the small amounts of aid the Tennessee Promise program gives to low income students do little to help cover those expenses.

“They still … need to pay for things like books and supplies … housing and food,” Voight told VOA. “And these free college programs, at least in Tennessee and New York, don’t do anything to support low-income students in paying for those other college costs.”

Voight would like to see these programs become “first dollar” aid. This means the states would cover as much of the tuition as students need based on their actual income level. Then low-income students could use federal and other forms of aid to cover the extra costs.

However, Mike Krause argues it is unreasonable to expect states to change in the way Voight suggests they should. Krause is the executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Committee.

He notes states such as his have limited financial resources and cannot offer the amounts of money federal and other aid programs can. Yet that does not mean the programs do not serve a greater purpose.

He says that for years, many Tennesseans have not seen higher education as a possibility because of the high costs. But once the message of “free college” began to spread in the state, many people began reconsidering this belief, even if some costs are still involved.

“States have to operate within … reality,” Krause said. “So to just tell every single student, ‘You have a full scholarship’ tomorrow, probably isn’t possible. But … if we get into, ‘In Tennessee, college is free, except for in the following circumstances…’ the risk there is that you water down the message to students.”

The results of the Tennessee Promise program's message are clear, says Krause. The state reports that its rate of students entering into higher education has increased by almost 10 percent since the program started.

Also, Krause notes that the Tennessee Promise offers aid only for tuition at community colleges, which higher income students usually do not attend. And 8,000 of the Tennesseans who began studying in the time the program has been operating received Pell grants. This suggest that students with financial need are entering into higher education.

Still, the problem is not limited to how much financial assistance these programs are providing, says Katie Berger. She is a policy expert with the research group the Education Trust, which released its own study of 31 “free college” programs and proposals.

The study measured how well each of the 31 programs and proposals served low income students based on eight different qualities. The study’s findings showed that the programs and proposals made the ways in which students receive their benefits needlessly complex or limiting.

For example, by limiting the program to community colleges, the Tennessee Promise program limits the choices available to students. And community colleges do not always have the same supports and resources available for students as four-year schools, Berger says.

In this photo from 2014, students hold signs as they protest a series of tuition increases planned for the University of California
In this photo from 2014, students hold signs as they protest a series of tuition increases planned for the University of California

Another quality the Education Trust looked at was whether the aid these programs offer would be considered a loan that students had to repay. This is the case for students receiving New York’s Excelsior Scholarship if they leave the state within two to four years of completing their studies.

Berger notes special rules like these do not consider the needs of low-income students first. So, she says, the “free college” programs are working against themselves.

“A free college program can serve as a powerful messaging tool, telling students that ‘college is available to you,’” she said. “However, the benefit of telling a low-income student that they can afford college is … undercut if you don’t actually make it affordable.”

Yet Don Kaplan, who represents the office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, says these studies are over simplifying the issue. For one thing, he says, from the beginning New York considered the Excelsior Scholarship a program to serve middle-income students. And the studies do not consider the aid programs the state has specially designed for poorer students.

In fact, New York’s Tuition Assistance Program provides about $1 billion in need-based aid directly to the state’s lowest income students, Kaplan reports.

“They … attempt to analyze one program … without understanding how it interacts with the rest of the state’s free tuition financial aid system,” he wrote in a statement.

I’m ­Pete Musto. And I'm Dorothy Gundy.

Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor. What level of responsibility to local and national governments have in helping people pay for higher education? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.


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Words in This Story

tuitionn. money that is paid to a school for the right to study there

incomen. money that is earned from work, investments, and business

applyv. to ask formally for something, such as a job, admission to a school, or a loan, usually in writing

fee(s) – n. an amount of money that must be paid

expense(s) – n. something on which money is spent

scholarshipn. n amount of money that is given by a school or an organization to a student to help pay for the student's education

circumstance(s) – n. a condition or fact that affects a situation

water downp.v. to make something less effective or powerful

providingv. giving something wanted or needed to someone or something

benefitn. a good or helpful result or effect

affordv. to be able to pay for something

undercutv. to make something weaker or less effective

analyzev. to study something closely and carefully

interact(s) – v. to come together and have an effect on each other