By Anna Helhoski
President Joe Biden proposed multiple “free college” measures while on the campaign trail. Do any of them have a real shot? Some experts think so.
“The issue is bipartisan in its appeal, economically effective and supported by the leadership in today’s Congress and administration — that’s (a) pretty good triple play,” says Morley Winograd, president of The Campaign for Free College Tuition.
Others are skeptical now is the time to move forward on free college.
“I have a really hard time seeing any sort of four-year free college program passing at this point,” says Douglas Webber, associate professor of economics at Temple University.
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The first glimpse of a formal proposal will most likely be in Biden’s upcoming budget, experts say. Here’s what to look for.
Tuition-Free Community College Is Most Likely
“Free college” really means free tuition. Students would still have to pay for room and board, along with other costs of attendance such as transportation, books and supplies. The average cost for room and board is $11,386 at a four-year school and $7,636 at a two-year school, according to federal data.
President Biden’s free college proposals include:
- Four years tuition-free at public colleges for those whose family income is under $125,000.
- Two years of free tuition for low- and middle-income students attending minority-serving institutions.
- Tuition-free public community colleges.
That last one is the easiest sell, experts say.
“We’ve seen how much free community college has become more popular,” says Wesley Whistle, senior advisor for policy and strategy with the Education Policy program at New America, a public policy think tank. “It became a drum and you hear it and that helps it pick up over time.”
The primary blocker for any tuition-free program is the cost, experts say, as any such program would likely be funded through a federal-state partnership.
Community college is the cheaper bill to foot: The cost to fund tuition at public two-year schools is around $8.8 billion compared with about $72.5 billion at four-year public schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
How ‘Free’ College Might Work
There’s already a blueprint for tuition-free programs: Currently 15 states have a program in place, while several others have extensive scholarship programs. Some cities do, too.
Most state programs, such as Tennessee Promise and the Excelsior Scholarship in New York, which both offer four years of tuition-free public college, are last-dollar. That means students must submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, and accept all need-based federal and state aid before the tuition-free benefit kicks in.
Most experts say a federally enacted program would likely be first-dollar, covering tuition costs before any other aid is applied.
That could increase the per-student impact of scholarships and state funding, says Edward Conroy, associate director of institutional transformation for the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.
“If we get a federal program that says we’re going to make tuition-free and you can still receive any state or federal grants on top of that, that would be a robust program,” Conroy says. In that case, additional aid could go toward paying for additional expenses.
Pell Grant Expansion May Be Easier
There’s another path toward tuition-free college, though it doesn’t have “free” in the name: the Pell Grant.
The Pell Grant program provides students who have demonstrated need with free aid; for 2021-22, it’s up to $6,495. Though the Pell was meant to cover most college costs, it hasn’t kept up — the average tuition and fees at four-year public schools is $9,212, according to the most recent federal data.
Most experts say doubling the maximum Pell Grant would effectively create free tuition and in some cases cover additional expenses. Biden has called for this, along with expanding eligibility to cover more middle-income students.
Robert Kelchen, associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, says expanded Pell would be easier to pass than tuition-free college since the grant program already exists.
Free college proposals are simultaneously blasted for not being generous enough and being too generous to students without demonstrated need, experts say. These criticisms make it more difficult to attain approval among both lawmakers and the public.
Expanding the existing Pell Grant program could work to provide free tuition, but it lacks the appeal of a new and “free” program.
“From a messaging perspective, saying the Pell (Grant amount) is going up by, say, $2,000 might not have the same impact on students as ‘Your tuition is covered,’” Kelchen says.
How Students Can Cut Costs
Tuition-free college policy could take a long time to pass through Congress — if it can at all — so students and parents may not see this benefit for many months or years. But there are a few existing strategies for getting a degree at a lower cost:
- Find out if your state already has a tuition-free program.
- Consider a public college unless a private school offers you more aid.
- Attend a two-year school, then make a plan to transfer credits and complete a four-year degree.
- Compare college cost, graduation rates and typical student loan payments using the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard.
- Submit the FAFSA and accept all need-based federal and state aid.
- Find scholarships using search tools. The U.S. Department of Labor has one.
- If your family’s finances have changed, request a professional judgment to appeal your aid award.
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Anna Helhoski writes for NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @AnnaHelhoski.