Why Free College Is Not a Big Public Giveaway

Achieving the Dream President & CEO Dr. Karen A. Stout shares her opinion regarding student tuition supports and the need for adequate college resources to provide services to advance student success. 


Americans believe that all students deserve a fair shot at earning college degrees. A college credential, the evidence shows, leads to higher wages and better jobs in today’s economy. It is a ticket to join the middle class and helps U.S. business find the educated workforce it seeks.  Getting more people to go to college just makes good sense.

Yet Americans also believe that college is unaffordable, a view held in particular by low-income families. Is free tuition an answer, or, is it, as some say, just another government giveaway? And does free college go far enough to serve disadvantaged students?

New evidence backs up the argument for tuition supports.

Last month, the American Council on Education provided a troubling analysis of college-going trends. Almost 56 percent of low-income high school graduates went to college in 2008. In 2013, only 45.5 percent did so.

Meanwhile, the Center on Education and the Workforce revealed that the hardest working students can’t afford to attend college. While historically, students looked to their jobs to pay for their tuition and living costs, today, a job in sales or food service pays only about $15,080 annually—enough to cover community college tuition but without enough left over to live independently or contribute much to a family budget.

Another report, Hungry to Learn, from researchers at the University of Wisconsin, tells quite the story about student determination and sacrifice. Half of the undergraduates at 10 community colleges studied are struggling with food and/or housing insecurity. Fully 20 percent are hungry and 13 percent are homeless.

With college costs a big deterrent to college going and so many college students attending the lowest cost institutions still living on the margins, providing free tuition for responsible community college students should never be viewed as a boondoggle for students. In fact, it is the best hope we have to help Americans earn family-sustaining wages.

Many states and communities already are acting as laboratories to test this at the grassroots level. Programs that offer free tuition or fees to select students can be found in virtually every state. In Tennessee, the first to implement free college statewide for the first two years, community colleges and technical schools are seeing 20- to 25-percent gains in freshman enrollments.

In Kalamazoo, Mich., students participating in the city’s Promise program have completed courses, degrees and credentials at rates that outpaced previous completion rates by a third to 48 percent. Among those entering community college, their 50 percent persistence rate far surpasses the national average of 29 percent.

Erasing college sticker shock for families is not enough to ensure student success, however. Achieving the Dream, a 10-year-old community college reform network, has found that low-income students in particular need interventions to overcome challenges, from the academic to basic necessities. Our Working Students Success Network, now operating in 19 colleges in four states, helps colleges connect to other organizations in their communities to provide access to public housing, foodbanks, and other public services while providing financial literacy training and pathways to careers.

Not just students, but community colleges, too, need new funding models to help them provide needed academic and non-academic supports and technology systems. In a recent survey, many of the college presidents in the ATD network say that they need additional resources specifically to provide more advising, tutoring, mentoring, and career services to advance student success.

A century ago, the idea that all students should graduate from high school was as hard for Americans to grasp as universal college access is for some today. Yet higher education is essential to the future social and economic mobility of millions of Americans. A broader college promise will open the door to far more students nationwide. At the same time, it will be incumbent upon national leaders to provide resources to colleges adequate to ensure those same students walk out our doors with credentials in hand and real opportunity for themselves, their families and their communities.


Karen A. Stout is President & CEO of Achieving the Dream, Inc., the nation’s most comprehensive non-governmental reform movement for student success. She is a member of the National Advisory Board of the College Promise Campaign, a national nonpartisan initiative to develop widespread support for investing in America’s future by offering tuition-free community college to responsible students.

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