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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

‘Free college’ helps middle class — not the poor

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They already pay little or no tuition, but struggle to pay for living costs. Many work so many hours they can’t handle a full-time college schedule.

Reports by the Education Trust and the Institute for Higher Education Policy conclude that “tuition-free” and “debt-free” programs benefit students from middle- and upper-income families.

Almost all free college programs use what’s known as a “last dollar model,” meaning they cover what’s left of a student’s tuition after other financial aid has been applied. For low-income students attending a community college, the federal Pell Grant typically provides enough aid to cover tuition entirely. But those students still shoulder the financial burden of books, food and housing, which only a handful of state programs take into account.

There are a few bright spots for needy students, writes Camera. Oklahoma, Louisiana and Maryland provide funding that can be used for living costs. “Indiana and Washington cover the cost of tuition on a ‘first dollar’ basis, so aid like Pell Grants can be used to cover non-tuition costs.”

Adam Harris sees “free” or “debt-free” college as a dream because states have limited funds. That leads to cost-saving restrictions “including limiting the tuition-free program to coursework at community colleges; only allowing students to study certain subjects; or requiring students to live and work in the state for several years after the program is complete. . . . Some states only offer free tuition to recent high-school graduates with a certain GPA; or they may mandate a drug test.”

NPR’s Cory Turner has more on the various “promise” programs.

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