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tuition free college
Students at San Diego City College in California. That state has begun a free-tuition program for community college students, but it’s limited to students who attend full time, are ineligible for other kinds of financial aid and have not previously enrolled in college. Credit: AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi

It seemed that everywhere he turned, Samuel Tretjakov heard about the idea of free tuition to college.

His friends discussed it. Presidential candidates kept calling for it. And politicians in his home state of California did more than just talk about it; they set aside some money for it, and invited students to apply.

To Tretjakov, that sounded not only like a good deal. He assumed that — as a full-time student enrolled at two California community colleges who was also working nearly full time to cover his costs — he’d be eligible.

But he was turned down, and learned later that the new state program applied only to first-year students. Tretjakov was in his second year.

“I just missed it,” said the 19-year-old. “You figure you deserve something, right?”

Meanwhile, his jobs left him little time to go through the red tape to ask more questions or seek other help.

At the campus financial aid office, he said, “The lines are long and you have to cut out a chunk of time to do that. That’s without even knowing that you could actually get something.”

California set aside $46 million for its promise program. That’s compared to $4.7 billion the state and its public universities spend on other financial aid.

Complexity over what free college really means is leading to confusion about whether students qualify. And, in fact, the fine print often excludes precisely the people who would benefit the most from free college, such as those who attend part time or students older than traditional age who want a second shot at a degree. In many cases the rhetoric of free college doesn’t match the reality of free-college programs.

Related: Even at elite colleges lauded for their generosity, some students take on debt

“Promise” programs, as these free-tuition plans are often called, can vary by state and even by campus, with some perks available at one but not another.

Lawmakers are eager to score political points for proposing a “big solution” to the nation’s college affordability crisis, said Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at the think tank Education Trust.

“What it does allow is for folks to win by saying, ‘We’ve done free college,’ ” Jones said. “But in actuality they haven’t necessarily made a difference for the students who struggle the most to pay.”

Adding to the confusion is that “the term is used to mean different things,” said Jen Mishory, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who has written about state financial aid practices.

Though “states often describe their programs as universal, in reality they include extensive eligibility requirements intended to either ration the benefit to bring down costs” or target a specific group of students, or both, she wrote in a 2018 analysis of promise programs.

In California, for instance — where more than half of in-state students in the University of California system and nearly half in the community college system already qualify for enough financial aid to cover their tuition — the neediest students still come up short because of the additional cost of room, board and other expenses. At the UC campuses, they graduate with debt more often than their wealthier classmates.

Related: Colleges start looking for ways to house and feed their students who are homeless

Yet under the state’s new promise program for community college students, which took effect last year, students can’t qualify for a year of free tuition unless they attend full time, are ineligible for the existing fee waiver and have not previously enrolled in college, exposing the program to charges that it largely benefits higher-income students.

”Folks … win by saying, ‘We’ve done free college.’ But in actuality they haven’t necessarily made a difference for the students who struggle the most to pay.”

It does allow colleges to spend their share of the promise money on textbooks, food and transportation for low-income students, but the total allocated for all of these purposes, including free tuition, is $46 million. For perspective, that’s a fraction of the $4.7 billion the state and its public universities spend on other financial aid and not nearly enough to address the largest costs community college students face.

“We are concerned that students show up” and realize that a promise program “either doesn’t apply to them or they’re at a college that is just covering tuition,” said Christopher Nellum, senior director of higher education research and policy at the California-based Education Trust–West.

A mix of proposals from lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom would expand free tuition to two years and to students who have attended college before, opening it up to more learners who are older than the traditional age.

Another proposed law in California is more ambitious, seeking to cover the full cost for community colleges, including housing and food, benefitting the lowest-income students. That measure, if approved, would eventually cost the state another $1.5 billion a year, according to the bill.

Related: Americans don’t realize state funding for higher ed is falling, new poll finds

tuition free college
Student at San Diego City College in California. That state has begun a free-tuition program for community college students, but it’s limited to students who attend full time, are ineligible for other kinds of financial aid and have not previously enrolled in college. Credit: AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi

“If it literally has to be one or the other — the neediest students or giving tuition to people who can afford it — I’m going to choose the neediest students every time,” said Iiyshaa Youngblood, president of the student senate for the California Community Colleges.

Not all progressive activists and researchers agree such a decision should come down to one or the other. “That presents a false choice,” said Max Lubin, CEO of the student advocacy group RISE, which works in Michigan and California. “This conversation needs to be driven by a moral conviction that public higher education should be free for everyone,” regardless of whether or not someone can afford it on his or her own.

At least 15 states have promise programs, according to a 2018 analysis by The Education Trust co-written by Jones. Eight added one in 2017 alone, The Century Foundation reports. And the momentum is only increasing.

Already this year lawmakers have filed dozens of proposed bills across 29 states and the District of Columbia meant to expand or create free tuition programs, according to the Education Commission of the States (though so far eight of these — in Mississippi, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming — have been voted down).

Presidential hopefuls have their own ideas for making college more affordable — ones that tend to be more expansive than what states are already promising.

Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2017 proposed a tuition-free college bill that would also cover living expenses for students with the lowest family incomes. It would cost $47 billion a year and its Senate co-sponsors include now-presidential candidates Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren.

Warren has since upped the ante by proposing making tuition free at every two- and four-year public college and university in America and adding $100 billion over 10 years to the existing federal Pell Grant program.

Those other co-sponsors have also backed a congressional measure that would make college debt-free for lower-income students. This proposal, from Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, would cost at least $84 billion annually. Presidential candidate Cory Booker also supports it.

Amy Klobuchar, another senator seeking the presidency, likes a more modest 2018 bill to make community college tuition-free, which Gillibrand and Harris have also backed. Pete Buttigieg, an Indiana mayor running for president who’s garnered national media attention, calls for expanding the federal Pell Grant but not a universal free-college program.

Most statewide promise programs are less generous. All but a few kick in only after all other sources of financial aid have been exhausted. Advocates prefer programs that provide free tuition independent of any federal or state aid if students meet income requirements. That way students can use their other help for expenses beyond tuition, such as food and housing.

Existing statewide promise programs also mostly apply only to community colleges, Mishory wrote, which is cheaper than waiving tuition at four-year institutions.

Related: A big reason rural students never go to college: Colleges don’t recruit them

States tend to place considerable limits on who benefits, too. Twelve of the 15 statewide promise programs are available only to students who are recent high school graduates or first-time students, The Education Trust found, denying access to older-than-traditional-age learners who want a chance at higher education.

“In fact, the eligibility requirements imposed by some states limit the programs to just a small percentage of college students,” wrote Mishory.

Most of the state programs restrict aid to only full-time students, paradoxically denying it to students who are more likely to be financially struggling because they need to work or care for loved ones. And while research shows that full-time students graduate at higher rates, states rarely put up enough money to help part-time students to work less and study more.

That wrinkle affects a lot of students: Forty percent of students work full-time and a quarter have children or are caretakers, according to the Lumina Foundation. (Lumina is a funder of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

For some experts, helping the neediest trumps offering something for everyone, including those with greater means. That’s in part due to finite resources. Nearly a million low-income students in 2017 who were promised financial aid didn’t receive it because states ran out of money.

“Our role isn’t to push for full cost of attendance for every single college student but to ensure that whatever we’re doing, we’re talking about prioritizing resources for the students who struggle the most to pay,” said Jones.

This story about tuition free college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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