5 ways to improve free college promise programs

All 23 promise programs cover tuition at a two-year college but only eight provide four years of tuition
By: | October 21, 2020
Most free college promise programs help students pay tuition, but not living costs, a new report finds. (GettyImages/eyecrave)Most free college promise programs help students pay tuition, but not living costs, a new report finds. (GettyImages/eyecrave)

Free college promise programs have made strides in expanding access to higher education but many initiatives still exclude too many of the students who would benefit, a new analysis has found.

Key findings in 2020 from the Education Trust’s “A Promise Worth Keeping” report include:

  • Most programs help students pay tuition, but not living costs.
  • All 23 promise programs cover tuition at a two-year college but only eight provide four years of tuition and include bachelor’s programs at four-year universities.
  • 14 of 23 programs exclude adult and returning students, while others have age or participation restrictions that effectively do the same thing.
  • Just two states have designed programs with adults and returning students in mind.
  • Minimum high school GPAs, standardized test scores and other requirements undercut equity and affordability.
  • 12 of 23 existing free college programs provide benefits but not necessarily access to undocumented students.
  • 12 of 23 active programs do not bar currently and previously incarcerated individuals but still have rigid eligibility requirements that are difficult for these students to meet. A combination of legislative and programmatic barriers that exclude these students in the remaining states.

“I remain concerned that too many states offer a ‘light’ version of free college that’s heavy on rhetoric while excluding the very students who have the greatest financial need and who have the most to gain from higher education,” said Tiffany Jones, The Education Trust’s senior director of higher education policy.

The report singled out the Washington College Grant as a model program that meets all of The Education Trust’s criteria for an equity-focused program.


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A new tax on high-revenue employers who benefit from high-skilled workers guarantees funding for the Washington College Grant. The program can therefore support all eligible students, even during economic disruptions, while tight funding leads to waiting lists in other states.

The study makes five recommendations for improving free college programs:

  • Include all students: No matter how long it’s been since high school, whether they’re part-time or full-time, or whether they’re undocumented or incarcerated.
  • Go beyond tuition: Cover the full cost of college, including fees, learning materials, and living expenses like food and housing.
  • Make improvements over time: State leaders should build political support to make free college programs more generous and more equitable.
  • Be transparent: About who benefits and who doesn’t, including by race, ethnicity and income.
  • Invest in student success: Guarantee equitable funding for the colleges serving large percentages of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.

“Covering tuition and fees to keep college affordable is critical but not sufficient,” said Martha Kanter, CEO of College Promise and U.S. undersecretary of education from 2009 to 2013. “We must increase college persistence and success, especially for students of color, low-income students, and first-generation college-goers.”


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