Joe Biden made two years of free community college a centerpiece of his presidential campaign in 2020, but Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia joined with Republicans to prevent the idea from being written into federal law. The Republican takeover of the House in the 2022 midterm elections is widely seen as making it even harder for Biden to win legislative victories. But just days after the election, community college’s most influential backer in the Biden administration—First Lady Jill Biden, a community college professor herself—was out touting the issue as fertile terrain for a bipartisan compromise.
“Joe and I will never stop working to ensure that all Americans can access community colleges and the career pathways they deserve,” Biden said in remarks prepared for delivery at the College Promise Careers Institute. “I have so much hope for what we can get done. Because this isn’t a red or blue issue. It’s an American issue. College Promise has worked with leaders from both sides of the aisle and across the country. We’ve seen successful programs in Republican states and Democratic cities and everything in between. This is one area where we can make real, bipartisan progress.”
For the Bidens to get free community college through Congress as national policy may be a long shot, but it is accurate that variations on the idea have been tried in states and other jurisdictions with both Republican and Democratic leadership. Tennessee, for instance, under the leadership of Republican Governor Bill Haslam, became the first state to offer free tuition at all in-state community colleges with the establishment of its Tennessee Promise initiative in 2016. These initiatives, commonly referred to as Promise programs, provide graduating in-state high school students with scholarships to help fully fund the cost of tuition at public 2- and 4-year institutions. Most programs do so by providing last-dollar funding, covering the remaining cost of tuition that students owe after factoring in federal Pell grants, other state awards, and the financial aid packages that schools offer.
The Bidens and other Promise program champions often cite two key benefits of free community college initiatives. The first is a spark to help boost declining postsecondary enrollment rates across the nation. The second is an improvement in the educational attainment rates and, in turn, the upward mobility levels of low and middle-income families.
But early evidence shows that these programs have largely fallen short of their promise to serve and uplift students from low-income backgrounds. New York State launched its Excelsior Scholarship program in 2017 to provide students from households that earn less than $125,000 a year an opportunity to attend college tuition-free at any CUNY or SUNY school. The state government estimated that 940,000 students from low and middle-class families would be eligible to receive this new aid. According to a CNBC report, however, less than 73,000 students have received the scholarship in the five years since the program’s inception, which constitutes less than 8% of the eligible population. A May 2022 report by the Urban Institute found about 32 percent of all funding has gone to students with family incomes below $70,000. By comparison, over 40% of students across New York State and nearly 60% of students in New York City are from households with incomes below $70,000, according to a statistical profile of New York’s K-12 education system issued in 2020 by the Manhattan Institute’s Ray Domanico. Students from the lowest-income brackets, who need funding the most, are receiving a disproportionately small share of the pie.
One reason low-income students are avoiding the Excelsior Scholarship and other similarly structured Promise programs is that many programs only cover tuition and fail to extend any aid toward covering other costs associated with attending college. A senior studying computer science at SUNY Stony Brook, Aneek Barua, initially used the Excelsior Scholarship to fund the remaining $3,535 he owed in tuition each semester after factoring in other grants and awards. However, even with the scholarship, he was still required to pay around $1,000 in mandatory school fees that are allocated toward funding the school’s athletic programs, technology labs, campus transportation, and student activities, among other purposes. On top of this, Barua had to fund his own housing and meal plan, which totaled around $6,000 a semester. While he was able to find a way to make ends meet through a mix of external scholarships, part-time work, and the federal work-study program, he was able to significantly reduce the amount of stress that he endured in doing so by switching over from the Excelsior Scholarship to primarily relying instead on the NYS Tuition Assistance Program. With greater TAP funding, which, unlike the Excelsior, did not preclude non-tuition costs, Barua was able to cover both the outstanding tuition amount and a significant portion of the $1,000 in mandatory school fees.
In addition to insufficient aid, many Promise programs impose additional burdens on students from the lowest-income brackets in the form of strict post-graduation residency requirements and administrative challenges. Under the terms of the Excelsior Scholarship, students must reside and work in New York State immediately after graduation for as many years as they received an award. For Barua, the residency requirement posed an additional challenge to his aspirations for achieving upward mobility because many of the high-paying software engineering jobs he was applying for were concentrated in other states like California and Washington. Even though abandoning the Excelsior Scholarship meant that his $7,070 in grant money would be converted into a loan he would have to pay back within the next 10 years, Barua decided that it was ultimately in his and his family’s best interest to incur the debt in favor of pursuing more lucrative tech jobs in other states that would enable him to realize his full future earning potential.
While the failure of Promise programs to steer funding toward the students most in need is concerning, it also, somewhat paradoxically, has at least one key silver lining. Namely, some of the current deterrents in place help to combat an unfavorable unintended consequence of Promise programs, whereby the promise of free tuition attracts low-income students to attend worse-performing colleges than they otherwise would have. Take, for instance, the case of Sergey Tsoy, a senior studying biology at the Macaulay Honors College in New York, part of the City University of New York. Tsoy graduated with high marks from a top test-in public school in New York City. Having seen the stress that paying off student loans placed on his mother, who attended college in the U.S. after immigrating just a few years before his birth, Tsoy made going to school for free a top priority in his college selection process. While Tsoy initially found free tuition from the Excelsior scholarship to be alluring and was content to go to school at a CUNY or SUNY of his choice, further research led him to discover that he, like Barua, would likely have to pay an additional thousands of dollars out of pocket in other non-tuition expenses and also be restricted to staying in New York for at least a few years after graduation. This realization prompted Tsoy to pursue alternatives, eventually leading him to look into and successfully apply to Macaulay, which is a lesser-known, highly selective honors college program that provides high-achieving students in the CUNY system with full-tuition scholarships. In addition to a full-ride and a rigorous academic program, Macaulay Honors provides Tsoy with a laptop computer, a personal academic advisor, an opportunity fund allowing him to study abroad for a semester, and 2 years of residency in campus dormitories. Ironically, the shortcomings in the institutional design of the Excelsior Scholarship pushed Tsoy into a program that provides him the resources and opportunities to realize his full potential as a student.
Some high-achieving, low-income students are not as fortunate as Tsoy, however, and, because of a lack of information or the overwhelming temptation of free tuition, do enroll in colleges that may limit their future earning potential and upward mobility levels. Take, for instance, the case of one first-generation, low-income 21-year old junior currently studying at the State University of New York at New Paltz. Having attended and performed very well at a public high school in New York City, the student chose SUNY New Paltz over Lehigh University primarily because of the free tuition he received as a result of the Excelsior scholarship. Although the decision seemed sensible and well considered to the student at the time, given his family’s financial situation, it also could be one that deflates his future earnings and outcomes. The median salary of a SUNY New Paltz graduate one year after graduation is $29,925, according to data from the U.S. Census, while the median Lehigh graduate starting salary is more than double that amount, at $59,200. While this student may end up outperforming the median graduate from New Paltz, the marked difference in earnings may indicate a larger gap in school quality and preparation for future success that often exists between many of the public institutions funded by Promise Programs and the private 4-year institutions that high-achieving students are capable of attending.
An academic study of the Adams Scholarship, a Massachusetts merit-based scholarship that functioned like a Promise program, found supporting evidence for this effect—receiving the scholarship actually decreased college graduation rates because it incentivized students to enroll in lower-quality public colleges in the state of Massachusetts rather than higher-quality private colleges that they otherwise would have attended, with quality defined as “a combination of graduation rates, academic skill of the student body, and instructional expenditures.” This is still the case today with low-income students who forgo higher quality education because of the short-term appeal of free tuition that Promise programs can offer. When I asked this SUNY New Paltz student directly where he would have gone if the Excelsior Scholarship did not exist, he answered, without much hesitation, “Lehigh.”
To better serve low-income students, Promise programs would have to implement more generous non-tuition funding, less stringent residency requirements, and improved operational efficiency. The Promise programs would also have to make those adjustments carefully, in a way that does not backfire by encouraging more low-income, high-achieving students to enroll in programs that limit their earning potential and upward mobility. Additional transparency about the cost-benefit analysis of applying for Promise programs, free consultations with college experts and financial aid officers, and more exposure of alternatives such as the Macaulay Honors College all represent simple, yet effective steps forward. Giving successful community college students guaranteed admission to a four-year school if they meet certain standards might also improve continuation rates. With those improvements, Promise programs might more fully fulfill their promise to low-income students and, in the words of First Lady Jill Biden, provide them with “the opportunities they deserve.”
Chris Ma is an undergraduate at Harvard College studying government and economics.