Expanding access: What 4 free college plans would cost

Free college would increase enrollment by 4% to 8%, with some students switching from private to public colleges
By: | October 7, 2020
GettyImages/Peter Dazeley

An analysis of four free-college programs, including one proposed by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, finds the proposals would cost between $28 billion and $75 billion in the first year.

And while the concept would expand access, it would have vastly different impacts at public and private institutions, according to “The Dollars and Sense of Free College” from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

A national free-college program could produce $371.4 billion in additional tax revenue and $866.7 billion in private after-tax earnings gains of $866.7 billion within the first 11 years, the report founds.

The tax revenue generated by the increased number of graduates would outpace the annual cost of some of the proposals within a decade, the report finds.


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“Free college isn’t really free for the taxpayers who will end up paying for it,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, lead author of the study and the Center’s director. “However, within 10 years, the annual benefits of some free college programs could outweigh their annual costs.”

A free college program would increase enrollment by 4% to 8%, with some students switching from private to public colleges.

Enrollment at public institutions could grow by 6% to 14% but drop by 7% to 14% at private schools.

Here a quick breakdown of four potential free-college initiatives:

1. Biden’s proposal covers public college tuition and allows financial aid to be used for other expenses. It caps family income at $125,000 and would cost $49.6 billion in the first year and $683.1 billion over 11 years.

2. A similar program without an income cap would cost $58.2 billion in the first year and $799.7 billion over 11 years.

3. If the federal government paid tuition not covered by financial aid, the program would cost $27.8 billion in the first year and total $414.9 billion over 11 years.

4. The most comprehensive program—covering tuition and all other costs, including room and board, books, and transportation—would cost $75 billion in the first year.


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Biden’s plan is considered a “first-dollar” program because it doesn’t require students to use financial aid.

First-dollar plans are more expensive but provide more assistance to low-income students, who can then use other types of financial aid to pay for living expenses, the report says.

“To cover all students’ needs including those beyond tuition, policymakers should consider how a free college program needs to be designed with race and class equity in mind,” said Jenna Sablan, a co-author of the report and an assistant research professor at the Center.