Free College Expands—Will It Make a Difference?
Tuition-free education sounds good. But it doesn’t address the entire problem facing the neediest students
When Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2016, he campaigned (in part) on the promise of free college at all public colleges and universities. Young voters loved the idea, even as many economists and higher education experts doubted its practicality. But since then the promise of a free college education has become more popular, and states have begun to embrace the idea.
More than 20 states now have some version of free two- or four-year public college for residents. New Mexico is the latest state to join the free college movement, and one of the most ambitious. While many of its peers—such as New York and Washington state—set family-income ceilings on free tuition, New Mexico plans to make college free for all state residents, regardless of how much a family earns.
As good as free college sounds, though, not everyone is convinced it will make that big of a difference for the neediest students. Even if everyone agrees that the cost of college is too high for many families, advocates for low-income students point out that tuition is only part of the problem.
Free college plans like New Mexico’s only cover tuition. They do nothing to reduce the cost of housing, food, transportation, and textbooks. All those additional costs are enough to make it difficult for many students to enroll in or continue college, especially if they have to work while going to school to cover the expenses beyond tuition.
Additionally, requirements like New Mexico’s that students attend college full time to qualify for free tuition can make it hard for some students to attend, especially if they have to work in order to support themselves or their family. This requirement, which is intended to increase a student’s odds of graduating, can end up backfiring by making people choose between work and school. When you’re not wealthy, that’s barely a choice.
A recent study published by the Brookings Institution suggests states might have a more positive effect if they targeted their spending to help low- and middle-income students cover the true cost of attendance and provide additional supports to help them complete college. Paying college tuition for students who can afford it themselves might be more than a waste of money—it could actually hurt low-income students by taking resources away from them.
The free college movement isn’t going away. But as it expands across states and moves closer to the center of presidential politics, it’s clear that higher education policy leaders and experts have work to do. They’ll need to make sure that it’s helping the people who actually need it—and not just helping politicians court votes.