Ed Trust Report Provides Framework for Equitable Free College Programs

September 26, 2018

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Report: A Promise Fulfilled: A Framework for Equitable Free College Programs

Authors: Tiffany Jones and Katie Berger

Source: The Education Trust

A new Education Trust report responds to the recent wave of state “free college” programs with an equity-minded critique of these programs’ designs.

The report, authored by The Education Trust’s Tiffany Jones and Katie Berger, casts the free college movement alongside the 1862 Morrill Act, the 1944 GI Bill, and the Higher Education Act of 1965 as a potentially transformative moment in the history of U.S. higher education. But just like those watershed legislative achievements, Jones and Berger warn, free college programs may suffer from important coverage gaps and design flaws that reinforce educational inequalities even as the programs improve access and affordability.

To evaluate how well free college programs address the needs of low-income and adult students, Jones and Berger propose an eight-part equity rubric and apply their criteria to 15 recently enacted and 16 proposed state programs.

The authors find that no proposed or enacted state policy meets all eight of their criteria (at the federal level, both Sen. Bernie Sander’s (I-VT) College for All Act and Sen. Brian Schatz’s (D-HI) Debt-Free College Act do). Even so, some free college programs fare better than others: Washington state’s College Bound initiative meets seven of eight equity criteria, for instance, while Delaware’s SEED Scholarship fulfills only the criterion that aid funds need not be repaid regardless of recipients’ later choices.

The most common shortcomings? Eligibility criteria that exclude adult and returning students and last-dollar program designs that preclude students from applying aid funds toward non-tuition expenses like room, board, or books. On the former count, recent proposals do a better job including adult students. Indeed despite their shortcomings, free college proposals may give equity advocates cause for optimism: As a group, recent proposals score better than enacted programs on six of Jones and Berger’s eight equity criteria.

To see how recent free college programs in your state measure up, visit The Education Trust’s A Promise Fulfilled webpage.

—Sam Imlay

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