New Research Demonstrates Public Support of Free College Programs is Impacted by Program Design

Posted by Elizabeth Bell on March 05, 2020 at 8:05 AM

Across the political aisle, extraordinary momentum has been building on the issue of tuition-free college. Overall 70% of the public supports the adoption of tuition-free public college, and policymakers in 19 states and nearly 300 cities have taken up the gauntlet and adopted a program. At this point, we know the idea of tuition-free public college is politically popular (see the map for a breakdown of this support across the states), but the burning question on the minds of policymakers is what program design engenders the most political support—what version of tuition-free college will reward them at the ballot box?

Question Text: Many states, regions or cities have implemented tuition-free community college policies in response to the rising cost of college. These programs provide financial support for all students living in the state/city/region that fully covers tuition expenses if they attend colleges in the same area. Do you support or oppose tuition-free community college policies?

In this blog, I present new evidence from my recently published academic study that reveals where American voters stand on key program design questions—for instance, what requirements should students have to meet in order to gain access? Should the program be open only to low-income families or all families regardless of income?

When I take this question to the American voters, I come away with two main insights:

  1. The public prefers tuition-free college be available regardless of family income
  2. The public prefers tuition-free college to have some minimum academic requirements

In the survey, a nationally representative sample of 2,500 respondents rated their support for one of four randomly assigned versions of tuition-free college, described in the table below.


High School GPA Requirement



 Family   Income   Cap


Group #1 Target Population: Students with family incomes of $50,000 or less; maintaining a 2.0 GPA

Group #2 Target Population: Students with family incomes of $50,000 or less


Group #3 Target Population: All in-state students, regardless of family income maintaining a 2.0 GPA

Group #4 Target Population: All in-state students, regardless of family income


In line with the surveys by the Campaign for Free College Tuition, this survey reveals that there is a broad base of support for tuition-free college, with 65% of Republicans and 74% of Democrats/Independents somewhat or strongly supporting tuition-free community college.


But once you introduce different policy designs, perceptions start to shift.

  • Making tuition-free college available to all in-state students regardless of family income increased perceptions of fairness by 3.3 percentage points.
  • Including a 2.0 minimum high school GPA threshold increased perceptions of fairness by 6.5 percentage points.

Therefore, program design is an important predictor of public support for tuition-free college, with universal policies with minimum academic requirements commanding the broadest base of support.


Dr. Bell is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Miami University of Ohio.  Her research -- The Politics of Designing Tuition-Free College: How Does Policy Design Influence Policy Support? -- was recently published in The Journal of Higher Education.

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