Dive Brief: 

  • Although free college is gaining traction, few such statewide programs cover nontuition expenses and are available to nontraditional students, according to a new report from The Education Trust. 

  • Adult students, generally considered 25 or older, are ineligible for 14 of the 23 programs analyzed, the authors note. Unauthorized immigrants and students with criminal records are also left out of many programs.

  • While new programs have emerged in the last few years, fewer proposals as of 2020 covered nontuition costs than did as of 2018, and many recent bills have stringent eligibility requirements.

Dive Insight: 

Free college programs should help low-income students pay for living expenses, cover at least four years of tuition, be open to adult and returning students, and not impose stringent GPA requirements, according to The Education Trust’s new framework

The researchers analyzed state-funded programs that covered tuition and fees and didn’t require students to have at least a 3.0 GPA or pursue a particular field of study. 

They found only eight of 23 programs cover tuition for four years and bachelor’s programs at four-year colleges. Roughly half didn’t extend benefits to unauthorized students, and most made it difficult for previously incarcerated students to participate. 

The report lauds the Washington College Grant as one of the most equitable free college programs in the nation. 

It promises to pay full tuition and fees for qualifying students whose families meet certain income thresholds, such as $50,000 for a family of four, The Seattle Times reported earlier this year. Students from higher-earning families can qualify for partial support. State lawmakers approved a tax on certain businesses to fund the program. 

Funding from the state program is applied before federal aid such as Pell Grants, meaning the latter can be used for some students’ living expenses. It’s also open to adult and part-time students. 

It’s one of several free college programs to debut recently. Additionally, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden proposed making public colleges tuition-free for families who earn below $125,000 annually

The pandemic threatens some free college plans. Oregon lawmakers cut $3.6 million from its program and the state is revoking some awards. The crisis has also left Maryland without enough funding to keep up with demand for its free college program, leaving almost 3,000 students on a waitlist, The Washington Post reported recently.

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