Expert Commentary

‘Free-college’ and ‘tuition-free’ programs: What the research says

While many politicians argue eliminating tuition will help more Americans go to college, studies show the results of “free college” programs differ according to their scope and structure.

free community college research Democrat presidential candidates campaign policy
(Truckee Meadows Community College)

In the lead-up to the 2020 elections, the Journalist’s Resource team is combing through the Democratic presidential candidates’ platforms and reporting what the research says about their policy proposals. We want to encourage deep coverage of these proposals — and do our part to deter horse race journalism, which research suggests can lead to inaccurate reporting and an uninformed electorate. We’re focusing on those that have a reasonable chance of becoming federal policy if a Democrat is elected to the nation’s highest office. For us, that means at least 3 of the 5 top-polling candidates support the idea. Most candidates say they would provide “free college,” but their plans differ in terms of who would qualify to receive it and which postsecondary institutions would participate. Free-college proposals generally aim to cover either tuition or tuition and mandatory student fees.

Candidates in favor of free community college

Michael Bennet*, Joe Biden, Cory Booker*, John Delaney*, Amy Klobuchar*, Deval Patrick*, Tom Steyer*, Andrew Yang*

Candidates in favor of free public colleges and universities

Pete Buttigieg*, Julián Castro*, Tulsi Gabbard*, Bernie Sanders*, Elizabeth Warren*, Marianne Williamson*

What the research says

While politicians argue that eliminating tuition will prompt more Americans to go to college and earn degrees, academic studies find this isn’t necessarily the case. Research shows the results of so-called “free college” programs differ according to their structure and scope.

Higher education can be expensive, and tuition is one part of the overall cost. Meanwhile, most free-college and free-tuition programs take a “last dollar” approach, meaning they cover only the amount of tuition left over after a student’s grants, scholarships and other financial aid money are applied. When structured this way, these programs offer a limited financial benefit to lower-income students. Many lower-income students receive a variety of need-based financial aid, including Pell Grants from the federal government, and if they spend that money on tuition, there’s often little or no tuition left for a free-college program to pay.

“First dollar” programs, on the other hand, are applied to the cost of tuition before other forms of financial aid, allowing students to use other aid money for such things as books, housing, transportation, food, laundry and medication.

Another key difference: Local free-college programs, of which there are hundreds nationally, target different student populations. While some offer free tuition to all students graduating from high schools in a specific geographical area, others are restricted to high-achieving students, full-time students or individuals who meet certain income and work requirements.

Key context

When politicians talk about “free college,” they’re usually talking about free tuition. Yang believes community colleges “should be funded at a level to make tuition free or nearly-free for anyone,” according to his campaign website, while Williamson told The Washington Post she supports “making community colleges and state schools affordable or free.”

Tuition, however, is not the largest expense for many students attending public colleges and universities — the schools most free-college plans target. Meals and housing are generally pricier than in-state tuition at public institutions. At community colleges, in-state tuition and fees totaled $3,642, on average, for the 2017-18 academic year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Off-campus housing and meals together cost an average of $9,952 that year for community college students who didn’t live with parents or guardians. Room and board on campus averaged $6,791. The NCES and other organizations often lump together tuition and mandatory student fees — science lab fees, student activity fees and athletic fees, for example — because, combined, they represent the cost of taking college courses. The NCES, a key source of national higher education data, also reports room and board as one cost.

Prices were higher at public, four-year institutions, primarily state universities. At those institutions, in-state tuition and fees totaled $9,044, on average, in 2017-18. Their students paid an average of $10,680 for on-campus housing and food, and $8,683 if they lived off campus but not with family.

Another key piece of context: There are so many different models of free-college programs, and the trend is still relatively new, that it’s difficult to gauge which approach is best at making higher learning more affordable and getting more Americans to and through college. Meanwhile, the number of free-college programs, also commonly referred to as “college promise” programs, continues to grow.

Nationwide, there are 420 college promise programs, according to an online database the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy created to track and study these programs. Fewer than 300 such programs existed in fall 2016, according to a study published in the Educational Researcher in 2018, led by University of Pennsylvania professor of education Laura W. Perna.

Perna and a colleague found that broad conclusions cannot be drawn from their findings, largely because these programs vary tremendously from place to place. Some pay tuition at community colleges across a region while others provide tuition at one specific state university. Some cover tuition and other expenses. Programs also differ in terms of the length of time students can participate and how they are funded — private donations or public money.

Perna and her colleagues write that their 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.”

Formative findings

Free-college and free-tuition programs have existed for decades in the U.S. but, prior to 2010, peer-reviewed research on the topic was limited. These programs became more common after the Great Recession, amid rising college tuition prices, mounting student debt and the growing need for more Americans to have a college education.

Among the first programs was The Kalamazoo Promise, created in 2005 to pay both tuition and mandatory fees for all graduates of public high schools in Kalamazoo, Michigan who enrolled at a two- or four-year public institution in Michigan. In 2015, the Tennessee legislature drew a slew of media attention after passing the Tennessee Promise law, making the state the first in the U.S. to offer free community college tuition to all its high school graduates. Since then, several states have begun offering free community college tuition to some or all of their public high school graduates, including Oregon in 2016, New York in 2017 and California in 2019.

In 2017, New York became the first state to offer free tuition at state universities — so long as students meet income requirements and agree to remain in New York after receiving their degrees for the same number of years they received funding.

Early research on these individual programs provides mixed results, but indicates that offering free tuition might not be enough to increase the number of Americans going to college.

For example, a study published in 2010 finds that the Kalamazoo Promise program prompted Michigan high school students to consider a wider range of public colleges than they otherwise would have. After the program’s introduction, more students sent their college-entrance exam scores to the state’s most selective public universities — Michigan State University and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor — and two local public schools — Kalamazoo Valley Community College and Western Michigan University.

The authors noted that lower-income students responded differently than their wealthier peers. Students whose families earned less than $50,000 a year were more likely to send their test scores to Michigan State University compared with students from higher-income households. They were less likely to send their scores to the local community college, a less expensive option. “Taken together, these estimates suggest that The Promise allows test-takers who are financially constrained to consider institutions that are higher priced and more selective,” the authors write in their paper, published in the Economics of Education Review.

In 2013, researchers published what they learned from examining a similar program a community college in the Pacific Northwest introduced in fall 2007. Under its Promise Scholarship program, the school provided one year of free tuition to all students who graduated from the local public high school, which primarily served racial and ethnic minority students living in a low-income area.

The authors of the study, which appeared in the Community College Journal of Research and Practice, discovered that the percentage of high school graduates who applied to the college soared after the program’s launch. Beforehand, fewer than 10% of graduates applied. In 2008, nearly 60% did. The share of graduates who applied began to fall, though, after that first year to 53% in 2009 and 46.3% in 2010, according to the study.

Not only did more students apply to the college, more students enrolled. Just over 8% of students who graduated from the local high school in 2007 went on to take classes at the community college. Meanwhile, 23% of the Class of 2008 did. The percentage of students who matriculated at the college steadily fell, however, with 20.5% of the Class of 2009 pursuing studies at the college and 17.1% of students graduating in 2010.

The authors also find that students who received free tuition were more likely to take a second semester of classes compared with students who did not, and the overall cost of the program was relatively low. Because most students received government grants or aid that covered the entire cost of their tuition, the program cost an average of $540 a year for each enrolled student, the authors explain.

A 2014 study of a free-college program in Massachusetts finds it has “little net benefit,“ the authors write in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics.

At the time of the analysis, the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship covered tuition at in-state, public colleges for Massachusetts high school graduates who earned test scores that exceeded multiple thresholds. The authors explain that while the Adams Scholarship improved college enrollment, it encouraged high-achieving students to attend lower-quality public institutions, resulting in depressed college graduation rates.

The program, they write, “reduces by about 200 students per year the number of colleges degrees earned by Massachusetts high school graduates. All in all, these considerations suggest the state is spending large amounts of money for little net benefit or even net harm to its students.”

Recent research

Three academic studies conducted in recent years offer additional insights into the structure and impact of free-college and free-tuition programs.

A study that appeared in 2015 in the Journal of Student Financial Aid looks at a Pittsburgh program that paid up to $20,000 in tuition over four years for students who graduated from the city’s high schools with a certain grade-point average and attendance record. The authors’ main takeaway: The program, called the Pittsburgh Promise, did not affect college enrollment.

They found that in years immediately following the program’s introduction in 2007, there was no statistically significant change in the odds that a student with the qualifying grade-point average and attendance record enrolled in college. The authors did, however, detect a small uptick in the probability of enrolling at a public university. When they looked at other schools, they learned that even though the program “made two-year schools cheaper and out-of-state schools relatively more expensive, enrollment in these schools was for the most part unaffected.”

In looking at New York’s statewide free-college program, a study published earlier this year in Education Economics concludes that it had a “negligible” effect on college enrollment within its first few years.  The state’s Excelsior Scholarship offers free tuition at state-funded colleges and universities to state residents whose household incomes fall under a certain threshold. Recipients also must agree to remain in New York after college graduation for the same number of years they received the award.

That study finds that the program, at least in its early years, “created minimal to zero effects on enrollment in New York’s colleges and universities.”

The author writes that the post-graduation residency requirement might be a reason more students chose not participate in the program. “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,” the author writes.

On the other hand, another 2019 paper finds the Kalamazoo Promise has demonstrated positive results in terms of college attendance, persistence and degree completion. To qualify for the program, which pays up to 100% of students’ tuition and fees at any public postsecondary school in Michigan, students must have attended a Kalamazoo public school continuously since ninth grade, live in and graduate from the school district and get accepted into a state college or university.

That free-college program, funded by anonymous private donors, also takes a first-dollar approach.

The authors analyzed data for students who graduated in 2003, 2004 and 2005 and compared with students who graduated in 2006 through 2013. What they learned: Kalamazoo Promise improved the odds of students enrolling in any college within six months of graduating high school by an estimated 14%. It boosted the odds of students enrolling in a four-year college by an estimated 23%.

Students took more classes, too. “We find that the cumulative number of [course] credits attempted increased by 13 percent as of two years after high school graduation, and these effects persist,” the researchers write in the paper, published in The Journal of Human Resources. “At two years out, the effects imply one additional class attempted; at four years out, they imply an additional two classes attempted.”

The authors discovered the free-college program also increased the percentage of students earning any postsecondary credential within six years of graduating high school by 10 percentage points. The proportion of racial and ethnic minorities who earned a bachelor’s degree within six years of graduating high school rose an estimated 7.4 percentage points, representing a 46% jump, according to the study. Researchers estimate the proportion of white students who received a bachelor’s degree within six years of graduating high school climbed 3 percentage points — a 7.5% bump.

Despite the improvements, the researchers note the program’s potential is limited. “As one might expect, ‘free college’ is insufficient by itself to ensure successful postsecondary education,” they write. “However, our results indicate that a simple, universal, and generous scholarship program can significantly increase educational attainment of American students. In addition, our results indicate that a simple universal scholarship can help low-income as well as non-low-income students, and therefore have broad benefits.”

Further reading

The Effects of the Kalamazoo Promise on College Choice

Rodney J. Andrews, Stephen DesJardins and Vimal Ranchhod. Economics of Education Review, 2010.

The gist: “We find that the Kalamazoo Promise increases the likelihood that students from Kalamazoo Public Schools consider public institutions in Michigan. In addition, we find that the Kalamazoo Promise especially impacts the college choice set of students from families who earn less than $50,000 in annual income.”

The Effect of a Community College Promise Scholarship on Access and Success

Elizabeth A. Pluhta and G. Richard Penny. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 2013.

The gist: “The promise of a [tuition] scholarship plus an intensive outreach effort resulted in the majority of graduating seniors submitting scholarship applications and a four-fold increase in the proportion of graduates from the high school who subsequently matriculated at the community college. Once at college, the student recipients demonstrated a high rate of quarter-to-quarter retention. However, few placed into college-level courses in English and math, and their academic progress at the end of the first year was modest.”

Merit Aid, College Quality, and College Completion: Massachusetts’ Adams Scholarship as an In-Kind Subsidy

Sarah R. Cohodes and Joshua S. Goodman. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 2014.

The gist: The authors find that “students are remarkably willing to forgo college quality and that [free-tuition] scholarship use actually lowered college completion rates.”

 Using a Merit-Based Scholarship Program to Increase Rates of College Enrollment in an Urban School District: The Case of the Pittsburgh Promise

Robert Bozick, Gabriella Gonzalez and John Engberg. Journal of Student Financial Aid, 2015.

The gist: “Findings showed that the scholarship had no direct effect on the overall rate of college enrollment. However, scholarship-eligible graduates were more likely to attend four-year schools in the years in which the scholarship was available.”

Understanding the Promise: A Typology of State and Local College Promise Programs

Laura W. Perna and Elaine W. Leigh. Educational Researcher, 2018.

The gist: This study offers a broad overview of U.S. “college promise” programs. “The study addresses the following questions: What are predominant types of promise programs that are operating across the United States? What are the programmatic characteristics of different types of promise programs? How do state-sponsored promise programs compare with other promise programs?”

Free Tuition and College Enrollment: Evidence from New York’s Excelsior Program

Hieu Nguyen. Education Economics, 2019.

The gist: “Since the fall of 2017, New York has offered free tuition to eligible residents attending its state-funded two-year and four-year colleges under its unique Excelsior Scholarship program. We …  document that institution-level enrollment effects are negligible.”

The Effects of the Kalamazoo Promise Scholarship on College Enrollment and Completion

Timothy J. Bartik, Brad J. Hershbein and Marta Lachowska. The Journal of Human Resources, 2019.

The gist: “According to our estimates, the [Kalamazoo] Promise significantly increases college enrollment, college credits attempted, and credential attainment. Stronger effects occur for women.”

Subject experts

Michelle Miller-Adams, professor of political science at Grand Valley State University and research fellow at the W.E. Upjohn Institute.

Robert Bifulco, associate dean, chair and professor for the Public Administration and International Affairs Department at Syracuse University and senior research associate at the Center for Policy Research and the Education Finance and Accountability Program at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

Celeste Carruthers, associate professor in the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee with a joint appointment in the Department of Economics and the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research.

Sarah Cohodes, associate professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Joshua Goodman, associate professor of economics at Brandeis University.

Jennifer Iriti, research scientist at the Learning Research & Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

Lindsay Page, associate professor in psychology in education at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education and research scientist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research & Development Center.

Laura W. Perna, professor of education and executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy, University of Pennsylvania.

Hosung Sohn, assistant professor in the School of Public Service at Chung-Ang Unuiversity.


*Dropped out of race since publication date.


If you’re interested in free-college and tuition-free programs, please check out our tip sheet featuring University of Pennsylvania professor Laura W. Perna. She offers five tips to help journalists improve their coverage of the issue.


This image was obtained from the Flickr account of Truckee Meadows Community College and is being used under a Creative Commons license. No changes were made.

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