These six words provide a blueprint for what public colleges can do to reverse the dangerous declines in enrollment they have experienced since Covid became part of our world. Both newly released research and the experience of states that have based their programs on those research findings demonstrates the power of tuition free college to attract students who want to increase their chances for future economic success. What’s more, such programs have generated bipartisan support that has helped thirty states adopt some form of free college, filling our Momentum Map with unprecedented levels of green.
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that enrollment in undergraduate programs dropped last fall by 3.1 percent, or 465,300 students, compared with a year earlier. The drop has contributed to a 6.6 percent decline in undergraduate enrollment since the start of the pandemic. With the nation’s unemployment rate at historic lows and wages rising, public colleges are facing unusual challenges that won’t be met by simply tinkering around the edges of their existing recruitment efforts. Instead, with the support of their state government, they will need to simplify their message and cut tuition prices to zero to fill increasingly vacant classroom seats.
Two of the five states whose enrollment declines were more than double the national average — Michigan and New Mexico — have taken dramatic steps to arrest the decline.
Last year, Michigan’s Democratic Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, won the support of her Republican led legislature to pass and fund two new initiatives to make the state’s community colleges tuition free. The first, Future for Frontliners, provided that benefit to those designated as essential workers during the pandemic. More than 120,000 people applied before the yearend deadline and, by June of 2021, 16,000 of those applicants had completed their first semester of community college. That program was then supplemented by an even more ambitious program, called Michigan Reconnect, which made community college tuition free for anyone over 25 who wanted to earn an associate degree. A total of 159,000 people applied and were accepted for the two programs together, and as of this spring, 41,000 were enrolled in community colleges tuition free.
Earlier this year, New Mexico’s Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham convinced both Democrats and Republicans in her state’s legislature to enact the most comprehensive, inclusive tuition free college program in the country. The Opportunity Scholarships the legislature funded provide free college tuition for New Mexicans attending any one of their public two- or four-year higher education institutions. Since the program is funded from state coffers, students who are entitled to Pell Grants can use that federal money to pay for the other costs of attending college without having to use those funds to pay for any tuition or fees. And every state resident, regardless of age or income gets the same benefits. The universal nature of the program makes their message easy to communicate—"enroll in college, it's free.”
When some legislators sought to exclude students from families with higher incomes, opposition to that idea came from both sides of the aisle. During the debate, Republican State Senator Pirtle, argued, “As a conservative, I don’t think people should be left out of something based on their income. Taxpayers supporting this program should be allowed to also benefit from it.” Or, as University of New Mexico Provost James Holloway so eloquently observed, “free primary and secondary education is seen as a public good no matter what walk of life you come from and higher education should be viewed in the same light.”
Both states’ initiatives reflect lessons from two recent research studies that examined why making college tuition free is so much more effective in increasing enrollment than typical student aid packages, which in many cases fail to deliver on their promise of expanding college opportunity to those who come from more disadvantaged families. Based on the results from different messages tested by the University of Michigan, a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research concludes, students “place a high value on financial certainty” up front in making decisions about higher education. Our findings suggest that a straightforward, zero-tuition program…would substantially expand enrollments among low-income students. However, we expect little effect of policies that rely on traditional, need-based aid programs and do not resolve uncertainty about aid until after [students apply.]” The problem with such well-meaning programs, as Edward Conroy, a higher education policy expert at New America wrote in Forbes, “is they are more complex to message, they are harder for students and families to understand, and perhaps most importantly, they give the impression that the aid is not guaranteed because of all the hoop-jumping required.”
To underline how important a simple message of free tuition can be in encouraging high school students to enroll in college after they graduate, a new analysis, from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics makes it clear that “college affordability is a major concern for families… particularly students who would be the first in their families to earn a degree.” In fact, the study showed, 90% of students who believed they could afford to pay for college and had a parent that graduated from college were enrolled in college within three years of graduating high school. But if the student didn’t believe they could afford to go to college, even if they had a parent with a four-year degree, only 71% enrolled in college after high school. If neither condition was met, only 55% enrolled in college within three years of earning a high school diploma.
The benefits students in Michigan and New Mexico will receive from their states’ radical new approach ensuring their residents can not only afford to go to college, but believe they can, will only grow over the student’s lifetime. A recent study by Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that the median lifetime earnings of those who earned a bachelor’s degree was $2.8 million, compared to only $1.6 million for those with only a high school diploma. But that doesn’t mean states, most of whom have burgeoning revenue streams and budget surpluses, can’t start doing something right now to reverse declining college enrollments. All they need to do is make an offer to prospective students that they can’t refuse — Go to College. It’s Tuition Free.
Our goal is to make higher education a possibility for every American, without regard to their financial circumstances.
We have a lot to do and not much time to do it, so your support is critical for our campaign to succeed. It’s with your investment that we can fundamentally reform how higher education is financed in this country, opening the doors to a more equitable society.
If you agree with our goal, our plan, and the urgency of the problem, we ask that you give what you can to help us write the next chapter in our nation’s history of continuously expanding access to universal, free education.