And in New York City, the City University of New York offered free tuition from 1970 to 1976, when the policy ended under the strain of the city’s fiscal crisis. Even so, between federal and state tuition assistance, nearly half of CUNY’s undergraduate students pay no tuition.
Advocates applaud the sentiment behind the idea of making tuition free at community colleges.
“I think these proposals come from a good place,” said Debbie Cochrane, research director at The Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit based in Oakland, Calif. “They come from concerns about making sure that college is affordable, and they come from a place that recognizes that postsecondary education is increasingly critical for today’s workforce.”
Still, Cochrane and others question whether free tuition is the most effective means to help the students who need it most, since students who don’t need financial assistance would also benefit from no-tuition policies.
Cochrane is concerned that such proposals don’t cover the other costs of going to college, such as textbooks, transportation and living expenses. Federal Pell grants already cover most, if not all, of the cost of tuition plus some living expenses for the neediest students.
In the current school year, Pell Grants, which students do not have to repay, provide up to $5,645 per year, typically for undergraduate degrees in two- or four-year colleges. In-state tuition at two-year state colleges in 2013-14 averaged $3,264, according to The College Board’s annual Trends in College Pricing report. But tuition and fees make up only 20 percent of the cost of attending community college, on average, the report said.
Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied the impact of the college-for-all movement, said free tuition could also have unintended consequences.
“I’m glad to see them moving in this direction, but I want to push them to think harder about how they’re going to get students to complete and not just start (college),” Goldrick-Rab said.
While some postsecondary education might be better than none, Goldrick-Rab said that those who take on debt to attend college but never receive a degree are at high risk of defaulting on their debt.
Similarly, Paul Attewell, a professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center who studies the sociology of education, said state lawmakers should focus on where to spend state dollars to increase the number of students who actually graduate from college.
“It’s not obvious that in all circumstances, using public dollars to reduce tuition to zero is the best use of (public) funds,” Attewell said. “It may work out that if you reduce tuition, you’re essentially saving the Pell system money.”
Attewell said that in some cases, states might be better served by steering public dollars toward the cost of public transportation for students or increasing the number of counselors and advisers to help students make it through community college.
Distributed by MCT Information Services