Expert Commentary

The pros and cons of ‘free college’ and ‘college promise’ programs: What the research says

We've gathered and summarized a sampling of research to help journalists understand the implications and impacts of “free college,” “tuition-free” and “college promise” programs.

free college promise tuition financial aid research
Students at the University of Michigan. which takes Kalamazoo Promise scholarships. (Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography, University of Michigan)

More than 19.9 million students are taking classes at colleges and universities across the United States this semester, up from 14.9 million two decades ago, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

As enrollment has swelled, so has the price of college. The average combined cost of undergraduate tuition, fees, room and board at four-year schools has doubled since 2000. The average cost of attendance for full-time students living on campus at an in-state, public college or university during the 2017-18 academic year totaled $24,320. It totaled $50,338 at private institutions.

Heavy student debt loads created America’s student loan crisis. A recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis shows that outstanding student loan debt topped $1.6 trillion in the U.S. during the second quarter of 2019.

State and federal lawmakers and 2020 presidential candidates have put forward a range of plans aimed at reducing college costs to curb student debt and encourage more Americans to pursue degrees. Most programs and proposals focus on eliminating tuition at community colleges and state universities. But some also aim to cover educational costs such as mandatory student fees, which schools charge to help pay for student events, health services and other campus offerings.

These initiatives often are referred to as “free college” — even when they only cover tuition — and as “tuition-free” programs. A number of cities, counties and states have introduced “college promise” programs, which also pay students’ tuition and, sometimes, other expenses at two- and four-year institutions.

Recent research indicates there are hundreds of college promise programs in the U.S. Some are small, serving students in a city or public school district. Others are open to students across a state. In 2015, Tennessee became the first state in the country to offer free tuition at all of its community colleges and technical schools with its Tennessee Promise Scholarship. Earlier this month, officials in San Antonio announced AlamoPROMISE, which will allow students who graduate from one of 25 local high schools to receive 60 credits worth of free tuition at five area community colleges starting in fall 2020.

New York’s Excelsior Scholarship, launched in 2017, is the nation’s first statewide program to provide free tuition at state-funded two- and four-year colleges. The program is open to New York residents who have a household income of $125,000 or less and agree to live and work in New York for the same amount of time they receive the scholarship.

To help journalists understand the implications and impacts of these efforts, we’ve gathered and summarized a sampling of research on “free college,” “tuition-free” and “college promise” programs. Because most programs are relatively new, scholars are continuing to study them. We will add new research to this collection as it is published or released.

Also check out these five tips for reporting on free college and college promise programs from Laura Perna, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania who’s also executive director of its Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy.


Merit Aid, College Quality, and College Completion: Massachusetts’ Adams Scholarship as an In-Kind Subsidy
Cohodes, Sarah R; Goodman, Joshua S. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 2014.

This study examines a Massachusetts program that offers tuition waivers to high-achieving students who graduated from Massachusetts public high schools. The waivers, a key component of the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship Program, cover the cost of tuition for up to eight semesters at any Massachusetts state college or university.

The key takeaway: While the scholarship induced some of these students to remain in Massachusetts for college — a primary goal of the program — it reduced college completion rates, find the authors, Sarah Cohodes, an associate professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Joshua Goodman, an associate professor of economics at Brandeis University. After the program started, about 200 fewer Massachusetts high school graduates per year earned college degrees.

Cohodes and Goodman find that each scholarship, valued at less than $7,000, encouraged students with high test scores to attend in-state public colleges and universities, which “were of lower quality than the average alternative available to such students.” Going to a lower quality school is associated with higher odds of dropping out, possibly because public institutions spend substantially less on instruction than private, non-profit colleges, the authors suggest. They analyzed a variety of data on Massachusetts students who graduated high school between 2005 and 2008, tracking them through 2012.

“The scholarship, though relatively small in monetary value, induced substantial changes in college choice,” Cohodes and Goodman write. “College completion rates decreased only for those subsets of students forgoing the opportunity to attend higher quality colleges when accepting the scholarship. We describe the magnitude of this response as remarkable because the value of the scholarship is dwarfed by estimates of the forgone earnings of attending a lower quality college or failing to graduate.”


Free Tuition and College Enrollment: Evidence from New York’s Excelsior Program
Nguyen, Hieu. Education Economics, 2019.

New York’s Excelsior Scholarship — the nation’s first statewide “free college” initiative — has had a “negligible” effect on undergraduate enrollment in four-year colleges in the state, finds Hieu Nguyen, a researcher at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Nguyen examined enrollment at public and private higher education institutions to gauge how students are responding to the initiative, launched in 2017 with the goal of helping more New York residents go to college. He looked at full-time undergraduate enrollment in the fall semesters between 2010 and 2017. He finds that even though students were offered free tuition, there was no statistically significant change in enrollment.

Nguyen indicates the program’s requirements might have discouraged some students from participating. “Apart from having to meet the state residency requirement to be eligible for the program, Excelsior recipients are expected to stay and work within the boundary of the state for the same number of years for which they receive the financial aid,” he explains in the paper. “While this constraint can be interpreted as fairly lax and reasonable by some, it might be viewed by others as too stringent, considering that New York has a high average cost of living relative to other states, and that Excelsior scholars are only awarded up to $5,500 per year after all other aid resources are exhausted.”

He notes that the Excelsior Scholarship is unlikely to change enrollment patterns among low-income students, whose tuition often is covered by other forms of financial aid such as federal Pell grants. Nguyen also notes the Excelsior program lacks a coaching component — unlike the Tennessee Promise program, which uses “community coaches” to help guide high school students toward graduation and immediately into college.


Understanding the Promise: A Typology of State and Local College Promise Programs
Perna, Laura W.; Leigh, Elaine W. Educational Researcher, 2018.

This academic paper offers a detailed look at the characteristics of college promise programs and introduces a framework for classifying them. The researchers analyzed 289 programs operating in the U.S. in fall 2016 and found they varied in numerous ways, including in their eligibility requirements, the types of costs covered, the structure of financial awards, the length of time students can receive the awards, and the number and types of higher education institutions that participate in the program.

“Perhaps most importantly, the analyses underscore the need for policymakers, practitioners, and researchers to recognize the diversity of approaches that is masked by the college promise label before drawing conclusions about the transferability of findings about one college promise program to another,” write the researchers, Laura W. Perna and Elaine W. Leigh of the University of Pennsylvania.

Perna and Leigh find that college promise programs have these features in common:

  • They aim to boost higher education attainment.
  • They offer a financial award to eligible students.
  • They have a place-based requirement such as residing in a specific city or state or attending a certain school or group of schools.
  • They tend to target the traditional college-age population.

Some other findings:

  • College promise programs exist nationwide, but the largest share of those that were analyzed — 37% — are in the South. A quarter are in the Midwest while 24% operate in the western U.S. and 14% are in the Northeast.
  • Just over half of the college promise programs are state-sponsored. More than three-quarters of state-sponsored programs require award recipients to live in the state for a year. Most — 80% — allow students to attend a two-year or four-year school.
  • Of those not sponsored by a state, 23% target students in a specific county, 24% target a school district and 11% target a city. More than half of programs that are not state-sponsored offer awards only to two-year colleges.
  • Of the programs examined, 28% cover full tuition and take a “last dollar” approach, meaning they cover the amount of tuition left over after a student’s grants, scholarships and other financial aid money are applied. Meanwhile, 12% cover the full cost of tuition on a “first dollar” basis, meaning the award is applied first, allowing students to use other forms of financial aid to pay for other education-related expenses such as books, housing and food.

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