States Continue Progress to Make Community College Tuition-Free

Blog Post
Jennifer G. Lang/Shutterstock
Feb. 28, 2023

The movement to make college tuition free continues to grow at the state level. Just last week, Minnesota State Senator Omar Fateh introduced a proposal to make college tuition free for some Minnesota residents, which seems poised to move forward in the state legislature. Earlier this month, Governor Janet Mills proposed $15 million of additional funding to continue Maine’s Free College Scholarship, a program designed to make community college tuition-free for recent high school graduates. While free college plans vary in scope, support, and programmatic design across states, one thing has become increasingly clear: state governments do not need to wait for federal action to make college more affordable.

The free college proposal in Minnesota highlights both the potential of, and the limitations to, recent efforts to make college affordable. Designed as a last-dollar program, the proposal would provide students at Minnesota state colleges with additional grants to help cover the cost of tuition. But, the proposal does not make college tuition free for all Minnesota residents. Instead, this proposal would require Minnesota students to pursue other forms of state and federal financial aid before providing additional grants to help residents attend college tuition free. If enacted, the proposal would provide students from families with less than $100,000 in income with enough aid to attend a Minnesota state college tuition-free. It would also provide additional financial aid to students from families making between $100,000 and $150,000 a year, but not enough to ensure these students attend college tuition-free. In total, more than 58,000 Minnesota students would be eligible for grants if this proposal becomes law.

While the Minnesota proposal would likely expand access to higher education for students from low and moderate income backgrounds, it would not make college tuition free for all Minnesotans, nor would it solve the college affordability crisis. All efforts to enhance college affordability that focus solely on tuition–rather than the full cost of attendance–are inherently limited, as the full cost of college is far more than the cost of tuition. In fact, costs beyond tuition–including students’ basic needs like housing, food, and transportation–are often far more than the cost of tuition itself [see figure 1]. 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.

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But there’s another factor limiting the effectiveness of Minnesota’s recent proposal. Research suggests that convoluted efforts to make college tuition-free are limited in their ability to help students. Unfortunately, the eligibility requirements and last-dollar design of the Minnesota proposal will likely diminish the program’s impact, as the program does not establish free tuition for all state residents in an easy to understand manner. While straightforward free-tuition programs strongly motivate people to attend college, the structural limitations of the Minnesota proposal leave the state with only a partial solution to the rising cost of college attendance.

Maine’s recent call to expand its Free College Scholarship offers an interesting comparison to the proposed Minnesota plan. In 2022, Maine launched the Free College Scholarship to make community college tuition free for all Mainers that graduated from a Maine high school between 2020 and 2023. Unlike Minnesota’s proposal, the Maine Free College Scholarship made community college tuition-free for all recent high school graduates, regardless of family income or other sources of financial aid. The program’s broad eligibility and simplicity helped make it a success: community college enrollment–which had significantly declined since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic–increased by 12 percent following the start of the Free College Scholarship. Because of this, Maine’s legislature is now considering funding the Free College Scholarship for an additional two years.

But Maine’s Free College Scholarship is limited relative to Minnesota’s proposal in important ways. The Free College Scholarship is only open to recent Maine high school graduates and only provides free tuition at Maine community colleges. The Minnesota proposal would allow students of any age to receive additional tuition assistance at either two-year or four-year colleges. While Maine’s program has clear benefits, in certain areas, Minnesota’s proposal is actually more generous, and as a result, could do more to improve college affordability than the Free College Scholarship.

This contrast between Maine and Minnesota offers an important lesson to the broader field. It’s clear that states can work to make college more affordable even in the absence of needed federal action. This is very encouraging. With congressional gridlock likely preventing legislation that could reduce the cost of college nationwide, states are advancing meaningful efforts to make college tuition free in different parts of the country.

But, the contrast between these two “free college” plans also offers a cautionary lesson: without federal action to make community college tuition free nationwide, state responses to make college more affordable vary in scope, effectiveness, and ability to help students. And given the fiscal constraints facing many states, state free college programs will likely involve important tradeoffs between how many people their programs will serve and how generous their programs are. Central to this tradeoff is whether free college eligibility will be limited by income or age; whether programs provide first-dollar or last-dollar benefits; and whether programs apply only to community colleges or also to universities. To design effective programs, states need to consider their intended goals of passing a free-tuition plan, and ensure they consider these tradeoffs relative to their goals and fiscal realities.

To best address the college affordability crisis, states should design first-dollar programs that are open to all residents regardless of age or income, much like New Mexico has done for its public colleges and universities. But, this is not something that every state can do for both fiscal and political reasons. Most state free-tuition plans will involve important tradeoffs between the number of people eligible and the generosity of the plan, and without additional federal action, states need to prioritize plans that will meet their unique needs and goals. Let’s hope Minnesota and Maine can meet theirs with these recent proposals.