The Actual Cost of Free College

Published by Imani Benjamin on

Tuition-free college has become a familiar concept to those paying attention to presidential hopefuls like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Politicians advocate for it in addition to loan forgiveness. 

College attendance isn’t necessarily the problem that politicians are focusing on. It’s the financial need that comes with acquiring a degree. Tuition-free college sounds like the solution to the problem of student debt, but these programs don’t take into account how it affects low-income students — or rather how it doesn’t help them at all.

American students collectively owe around $1.6 trillion in private and federal loans. This number averages around $29,000 per graduate. Students who pursue professional degrees and graduate programs are more likely to rack up much more debt in the following years.

Those attending college from wealthier or middle-income backgrounds can graduate with less debt. This background gives a majority of these students the ability to pay for college without taking out loans.  But not everyone has the ability or the means to avoid college loans, which is where tuition-free college programs come in.

Tuition-free college is not a new or an unfamiliar concept. Tuition free programs are present in many states. They are meant to help low-income students pay for college by providing financial help towards tuition. Tuition-free college programs are usually state-funded through tax dollars or the lottery, and apply almost exclusively to community colleges.

They’re supposed to help students with the cost of college. With the support students receive, it’s possible to not pay anything at all or contribute a small amount out of pocket.  While most tuition free programs apply to low-income students, there are some that aren’t restricted to one group. 

These free tuition programs are called “promise” programs. There are currently two hundred active throughout the United States. Some are very new, and others have been helping students afford college for decades. 

They vary state to state. Some states provide financial support for all four years of college, while others only cover the first year of community college. 

They vary on who can and cannot receive support. It ranges from first-year students, returning learners, older learners and sometimes part-time students. Promise programs and free college tuition programs can be divided into groups that provide aid to community colleges and four year colleges, last dollar programs and need-blind programs, programs that don’t consider financial need when providing aid. 

Nicole Colon - Rivera | Avant-Youth

Four-Year Universities

State “promise” programs are for students who attend community colleges. Four-year public universities are usually funded by the state or local lotteries. The University System of California and the University System of Georgia for example, systems that include public and private four-year universities, provide financial aid to students through lottery funded and state aid programs. These programs are similar to promise programs. 

Georgia’s Hope Scholarship is part of the Hope Program, which provides funds for students through revenue from the Georgia lottery. The Program includes the Hope Career Grant — for students attending technical college — and the Zell Miller Scholarship, which covers 100% of in-state tuition. Hope covers 80% of a students tuition and fees and is used at two and four-year in-state colleges. 

Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars helps provides nearly full coverage of tuition and fees to local students. The program has been in place for the last thirty years and helps to cover tuition and fees, specifically to low-income students. The program, however, does not cover older or returning students.

The problem with programs like these is student-eligibility and requirements. The Hope Scholarship is a merit-based program. Students who graduate from a Georgia high school with a 3.0 GPA can use it at any two or four-year college. The Zell Miller Scholarship is a more challenging achievement, students must graduate with a 3.7 and maintain a 3.3 to keep their funds. Merit-based programs like this have, according to The Century Foundation, a negative effect on students from lower income communities. These students have less access to resources needed to achieve these high scores. 

The 21st Century Scholars is one of many that has rigid requirements for those eligible for the program. It starts in the seventh grade and is almost exclusively for low-income students. Middle and high schoolers in Indiana have multiple requirements to keep them on track to graduate and receive aid including maintaining a B-average. If students and their families can’t meet financial requirements or fail to meet a middle school or high school requirement, they might risk losing their scholarship. 

Last Dollar Programs

Last dollar programs make up the majority of free tuition programs that apply to community colleges. Last dollar” programs cover the funds remaining after federal and state aid has been disbursed to students. This supports low-income students after they receive federal aid like the Pell Grant.

These programs apply to first year students attending state community colleges. The Los Angeles College Promise Program only covers tuition for one year at a community college for high school graduates. In Missouri, the Missouri A+ Scholarship Program offers students support by covering the remainder of their account following disbursement of federal loans. Even though last dollar programs only cover the first year, students can receive aid from their colleges that extends to their next three years. 

The problem with last dollar programs is often federal aid. Low-income students who receive the Pell Grant find themselves without aid from a last dollar program because Pell has met their quota. 


Need-blind access is a term associated with institutions that ignore students’ financial status when they apply to college. Oregon implements a need-blind program, only three years old, called Oregon’s Promise Program. It does not consider the financial need of the students applying to it, and does not restrict to low-income students. This promise program also only covers two years or ninety credits of tuition. Like some promise programs, it does not include additional fees and only applies to in-state community colleges. 

Need-blind programs like this are not restricted to low-income students. They help students, but because they aren’t based on financial need, it appears they aid middle-income students more than low-income students. This program often helps the students that don’t need it and disadvantages the ones who do. 

The thing is, while free tuition sounds great, it’s not. Students from low income backgrounds are more likely to go into debt than their wealthier counterparts. The IHEP, aka the Institute for Higher Education Policy, did a study on free college tuition programs using information from New York and Tennessee’s public colleges. 

Programs similar to the Excelsior scholarship and Tennessee Promise Program do not provide substantial assistance to low-income students. According to IHEP, “… the promise of ‘free’ does not allocate scarce state dollars to the neediest students in either state, nor does it improve college affordability for them.” 

Some students struggle to get the money that their state offers them. Eligibility means reaching and maintaining a high GPA, or having the right financial need. Even if students have financial need, they may not have the resources to achieve the eligibility needed to receive aid. 

Students in lower income areas receive less resources to meet GPA requirements. Anyone applying to the government for financial aid has to display need. In the case of students who receive support from a grant like Pell, they no longer qualify for some promise programs because their financial need has presumably been met. 

Students who receive aid, but are still unable to pay, are more likely to take out loans and increase debt. The debt for tuition and fees is joined by debt needed to pay for housing, books and other expenses. Although free tuition seems like a great idea, it doesn’t consider how it negatively affects lower-income students who need the most help.  

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Imani Benjamin

Imani Benjamin-Wharton is a graduate from Georgia State University with a degree in English. She’s an aspiring novelist hoping to write the next great American novel. In her free time, she learns the secrets of survival from her favorite horror movies.

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