Free for All?

Investigating Who Would Get Free College

February 20, 2020

Cities and states have already introduced several “free college” plans, primarily in the form of College Promise programs. Nearly half of all states have programs that provide tuition-free college for some students. And its seems like nearly every Democratic presidential candidate has a plan to provide more students with free or low-cost education.

A federal free college program could dramatically change the landscape of higher education, but much depends on the choices legislators make. Which students, and which institutions, would be eligible? Which college expenses would be covered? Our interactive feature shows how the answers to these questions could dictate which students would benefit from a broad free college plan.

Policymakers disagree on which college expenses should be free. For now, we will use “free college” to mean students pay nothing in tuition and fees. Merit-based or need-based grants cover these costs.

About 27 percent of students (i.e., 27 students in our world) attending US colleges currently have free college. These students receive merit-based grants (such as Louisiana’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS, awards) or need-based grants (such as the federal Pell grant), and these grants cover tuition and fees.

Let’s consider two students currently receiving free college:


Elle is a dependent student attending a four-year public institution. Her parents’ annual income is $90,000, making her ineligible for federal need-based grants. She instead receives free college through merit-based grants because of her academic success in high school.


Abed is an independent student earning $35,000. He attends a two-year public institution while caring for his two children. Abed pays nothing in tuition and fees because need-based federal and institutional grants fully cover these costs.

Elle and Abed attend different institutions and have substantially different economic circumstances, but both currently have free college.

Now that we’ve seen who already gets free college, let’s think about the free college plan we might put in place. One of the key debates among Democratic presidential candidates is whether access to free college should be universal.

But when states implement free college, they often impose an income ceiling for eligibility, like in Washington and New York. Similarly, we will implement a cap at 400 percent of the federal poverty level. In 2019, this cap would amount to $49,960 for a single person or $103,000 for a family of four. Anyone with a household income below that threshold is eligible for free college under this plan.

This 400 percent cap is relatively generous; although 27 percent of students receive free college currently, 81 percent receive it under this plan.

But many of these students attend private institutions, which typically aren’t included in free college plans. What happens when we limit the plan to public colleges and universities?

Restricting the plan to two- or four-year public institutions means 65 percent of current students would receive free college. About 25 percent of students who would be eligible based on family income still have tuition bills, because they are not enrolled in a public school. Slightly more than half are enrolled in nonprofit private schools, and the remainder are enrolled in for-profit institutions.


Devon comes from a family of five. His parents earn $75,000, and he attends a four-year public university. Under this plan, Devon would now receive free college.


Justina attends a for-profit university. She is a dependent student, the daughter of a single mother who earns $10,000. Despite her low income and a Pell grant, Justina doesn’t qualify for free college and will pay for her tuition and fees with savings and student loans.

Income isn’t the only thing that matters when we’re thinking about how this plan may affect students. We can also see the effects of this free college plan on students of different races and ethnicities.

Still, many currently enrolled low-income students of color, like Justina, won’t benefit from this free college policy. One reason is the disproportionate share of Black and Latino students at for-profit colleges. Students may opt for a for-profit institution because they live far from a public college or because the for-profit meets their needs better (e.g., by providing night classes).

Free college is sometimes touted as a means to help students reduce, or even eliminate, their need for student loans. If we provide eligible students with full tuition and fees, how might this affect the share of students who need to take on debt to attend college?


Ana is a dependent student attending a two-year college. She lives with her family to reduce her living costs while she is in school. Her family’s $30,000 income qualifies her for free tuition under this plan. Ana would not need to take out loans.


Denise is an independent student earning $20,000. She lives in an expensive city to attend a four-year university. Even though her tuition is covered under this plan, she would still need to take out loans to pay for her living expenses.

Some policymakers have suggested that free college plans should provide students with enough money to cover tuition, fees, and living costs. What happens if we change the definition of free college to include a yearly $5,000 stipend?

Six percent of students have their tuition, fees, and $5,000 worth of living expenses covered by grants and scholarships. If we add a $5,000 stipend to the free college plan, a larger share of students would benefit, meaning some students could reduce their debt or work less to cover their living expenses.

Of course, offering all students eligible for free college an additional $5,000 a year substantially increases the plan’s costs.

Some policymakers want a free college plan that covers tuition and fees and allows students who already have aid to keep it and use it for living expenses.

Let’s look at how this would work under the plan.


Stephen, an independent student without federal grant aid, attends a four-year university that costs $20,000 a year. Because his household income is still below 400 percent of the federal poverty level, he would receive $20,000 for tuition and fees under this plan.


Sally is a dependent student at the same school, but she is eligible for a Pell grant. She would receive $20,000 for tuition and fees and keep her $3,000 Pell grant to use toward living expenses.

We’ve assumed that students will stay in the institutions they’re currently attending, but free college could encourage many students to switch schools.

If many students decide to switch to a public institution—or if free college convinces more people to pursue higher education—the costs to the federal government will rise, and some public flagship institutions might become more selective.

If a national free college plan is put in place, states and localities might reduce their funding for public institutions, causing the federal government to shoulder more of the cost. Nearly all proposals have mechanisms to keep states invested, but this may require trade-offs.

Right now, 52 percent of total funding for education at public institutions comes from state and local funds. Since some states invest more funding in higher education than others, the federal government will need to understand how to allocate funds equitably.

The idea of broadening access to free college is an appealing and important one, but how such a plan is designed hinges on the nation's underlying goals.

If providing universal access to college is a priority, policymakers may want to make all two-year public institutions free, since those institutions are open to all who apply. If the goal is to reduce student loans, policymakers need to consider funding living expenses for low-income students. And to close college graduation gaps for students of color, policymakers should explore strategies in addition to free college, such as providing more comprehensive supports outside of tuition and fees.

Whatever choices we make regarding free college, whether to maintain the current system or overhaul the funding of higher education, they will shape federal and state budgets and students’ lives for decades to come.