States Can’t Afford NOT to Make Their Colleges Tuition Free

Posted by Morley Winograd on February 21, 2019 at 10:50 AM

Momentum is building in states across the country to make more of their higher education system tuition free. As candidates and Congress at the national level bemoan growing economic inequality, Governors and state legislative leaders are enacting into law the one policy initiative that has proven to increase economic mobility for those in the middle class and those struggling to get in. Now, new research helps quantify the economic benefit students in those states that choose to undertake this initiative can expect to receive in additional income, for both them and their state government.

Princeton University Professor Jack Mountjoy’s rigorous research on the impact of increased access to community colleges in Texas concludes that those who would not otherwise attend college, principally lower income and/or female students, earn $1,337 more per quarter by around age 30 than if they hadn’t enrolled in community college, which represents a 21.8 percent earnings premium. For just women, Mountjoy’s study calculates the quarterly earnings increment from attending community college at $1,587, and for what he terms “disadvantaged students” the incremental earnings gain is $1,373 per quarter by age 30. Similar positive impacts on individual earnings through increased access to higher education have been documented by Sara Goldrick-Rab at Temple’s HOPE Lab.

Since the average cost of educating a full-time community college student is roughly $10,000 per year of enrollment, it takes only about two years of higher earnings to recoup each year of upfront social investment by the state. This data makes it clear that critics who base their opposition to free college tuition on the issue of affordability have framed the issue exactly backwards. The real question is how any state can NOT afford to make their college’s tuition free if they hope to have an ever-expanding economy and the revenues that flow from it.

The results from pioneering states like Tennessee and Rhode Island demonstrate that the benefits of free college tuition are not just academic theory but work in practice. This makes a compelling case for the critical role that increasing access to higher education must play in any state’s economic development plan. And at the start of 2019, we’ve seen that play out as a round of new or expanded free college tuition programs have been introduced by newly elected governors and legislatures in red and blue states alike.

In Michigan, newly elected Governor Gretchen Whitmer has proposed both an MI Opportunity program to make the state’s community colleges universally free, as well as a Michigan's Reconnect program modeled after the one in Tennessee, which supports adults returning to community college to gain the skills they need to get good paying jobs in today’s economy.

The West Virginia Senate under the leadership of Senate President Mitch Carmichael – who also serves as his state’s Lieutenant Governor – unanimously passed a bill to make community and technical colleges tuition-free, which now awaits action in their lower house.

Utah's House Education Committee unanimously passed HB260, which creates the Access Utah Promise Scholarship program that would cover the costs of tuition and fees for qualified students, including adults returning to college. Robert Gehrke, writing in the Salt Lake Tribune called it “quite possibly the best bill Utah’s lawmakers will see in 2019.”

In Washington, a long time supporter of free college tuition, Representative Gerry Pollet, introduced HB1123, which would create a Washington Promise to make their community colleges tuition free for students from low and middle income families.

And in North Carolina, Governor Cooper has renewed his support for establishing NC GROW, which will allow high school grads to attend community college for free if they pursue certain specified courses of study making them qualified for jobs in high demand in that state.

Leaders in other states that have experienced success already with their free college tuition programs are now seeking to expand those programs in this year’s legislative sessions.

Newly re-elected Rhode Island Governor Raimondo is working to expand her incredibly successful RI Promise Program to include free tuition for juniors and seniors at one of the state’s four year universities, Rhode Island College.

Newly elected California Governor Newsom has provided money in his proposed budget to fund the cost of making the second year of that state’s community colleges tuition free this year. Passing the enabling legislation to make that happen, aptly named AB2, will maintain the state’s leadership in providing first, not last, dollar scholarships for all full-time students enrolling in a community college upon graduation.

And in Maryland, bills have been introduced in the legislature to make the junior and senior of colleges in Maryland free for those students who use the state’s existing Promise program to complete community college tuition free. Securing passage of the legislation would fulfill one of newly re-elected Governor Hogan’s key campaign promises.

With over 80% of the public supporting the idea of free college tuition, including majorities of all partisan stripes, it is no wonder that free public college tuition continues to be the most popular and the most positive public policy initiative any elected state leader can undertake.


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The Campaign for Free College Tuition is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization established in the State of Washington in 2014 to educate parents, students, the higher education community, policy makers and taxpayers about efforts needed to fundamentally reform our nation’s system for financing higher education. This website and CFCT’s educational outreach activities are made possible through generous individual and foundation support.