It’s Not Enough to Make College Tuition Free

Blog Post
April 11, 2022

Last month, New Mexico became the most recent state to pledge to make college tuition free for its residents. While more than half of U.S. states offer some form of free college program, New Mexico’s recent law offers the most generous, and comprehensive, state plan to make college tuition free. The program, available to all New Mexico residents, covers the full cost of tuition and fees at New Mexico public colleges and universities, community colleges, and tribal colleges, for both part-time and full-time students. Importantly, the program is available for students of any age regardless of income, and is open to all state residents regardless of their immigration status. Designed as a first-dollar program, the New Mexico plan will cover student tuition and fees without considering other potential sources of financial aid, which will allow students to use other sources of funding to help address their living expenses.

While the New Mexico program is a comprehensive, ambitious effort that will improve affordability and access to higher education, efforts to enhance college affordability that focus solely on tuition – rather than the full cost of attendance – are inherently limited. The full cost of college is far more than the cost of tuition. In fact, costs beyond tuition – such as housing, food, and transportation – are often far more than the cost of tuition itself [see figure 1]. Making tuition free will help students afford the entire cost of college, and will allow students to use other sources of financial aid to help address their living costs. But without other actions, making college tuition free will not prevent students from accumulating debt.

The limits of free tuition plans are particularly clear for community colleges, where tuition is a small portion of the average total cost of attendance. This means that in implementing free-tuition plans, community colleges will receive less state funding than four-year universities. Additionally, community college students will still need to pay the vast majority of the full cost of their college education out of pocket, given that living expenses are far more expensive than the maximum Pell Grant award, which is the largest source of federal financial aid for higher education [see figure 2]. Removing tuition and fees will help community college students better afford their education, but without further action, making college tuition free will not solve long standing inequities in access to higher education, nor will it make college truly affordable.

How to Make College Affordable: Moving Beyond Free Tuition

To make college affordable, policymakers need to reduce the entire cost of attendance, rather than just making tuition free. To do this effectively, policymakers should prioritize reducing living expenses students most struggle to afford: housing, food, and transportation. On average, students spend nearly $25,000 per year on these critical living expenses, which is far more than the average cost of in-state tuition at public universities and community colleges.

For the nearly 5 million student parents who make up 26% of all undergraduates, childcare can be a significant barrier to college enrollment and completion. Efforts to make college truly affordable must therefore also reduce childcare costs for student parents. If policymakers focus on reducing the entire cost of attendance, rather than just tuition, they will make significant progress on advancing educational and economic equity and preventing future student debt.

To reduce the entire cost of college, policymakers should:

  1. Increase financial aid to ensure all students can afford their living expenses
  2. Provide housing vouchers to students with low incomes, particularly those at community colleges
  3. Expand public benefit programs – like SNAP – to better include, and suit the needs of, college students
  4. Invest in public transportation to ensure students have accessible transit options
  5. Invest in childcare centers at or near college campuses and create subsidies to make it affordable for students to access those centers

If policymakers work to reduce housing, transportation, food, and childcare costs for college students, they will make meaningful gains in advancing educational and economic equity. While making college tuition free is no small feat and will undoubtedly help students access higher education, a more comprehensive approach to enhancing college affordability would be more successful in expanding access to college and preventing future debt burdens. It’s time for policymakers to think boldly and tackle the full cost of college. If they do, we’ll benefit for years to come.

Enjoy what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates on what’s new in Education Policy!