Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Report: TN, NY Free College Programs Fall Short on Improving College Affordability

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Report: TN, NY Free College Programs Fall Short on Improving College Affordability

Article excerpt

New analyses of two states' free college programs indicate that the widely praised programs fall short on making college affordable for lower-income and working-class students.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy's (IHEP) equity-focused analyses show that while Tennessee's Promise program and New York's Excelsior Scholarship cover tuition for students attending public colleges in the states, the programs fail to cover non-tuition related expenses, which can serve as a pressing financial barrier for low-income students compared to higher-income peers.

"The details matter," says Mamie Voight, vice president of policy research at IHEP. Voight adds that free college programs like the Tennessee Promise and Excelsior Scholarship have an opportunity to place equity at their core by targeting resources to students with the greatest financial need, making college "more of a stepping stone" for socioeconomic mobility.

Since 2015, the Tennessee Promise covers tuition and fees for students attending the state's technical and community colleges. A recent expansion in 2018 - the Tennessee Reconnect - expanded the program's benefits to adult learners in the state.

Similarly, New York's Excelsior Scholarship covers students' tuition and fees if they attend a City University of New York (CUNY) or State University of New York (SUNY) public college.

Building on a 2017 IHEP college affordability report "Limited Means, Limited Options," Voight and Alain Poutré, a research analyst at IHEP, performed data analyses on college affordability in Tennessee and New York.

The researchers ran three example students from varying income backgrounds through net price calculators in both states before and after the free college programs were offered. Then, researchers modeled out the implications for students.

"Once we started running those numbers, the results became very clear" that low-income students were not benefiting from the programs due to their design, Voight says.

IHEP's recent analyses found that because both programs are designed as "last-dollar" programs, they fail to help students cover non-tuition fees such as room and board, textbooks and transportation.

IHEP's analyses used the "Rule of 10" to determine the example students' "affordability threshold" for college.

The threshold is calculated by factoring in 10 percent of the student's family's discretionary income for 10 years before college and their minimum-wage earnings from working 10 hours a week while enrolled. A college is affordable for a student if they can cover the total cost, including tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies and other educational fees.

Additional findings showed that the Tennessee Promise distributes state funding inequitably, "providing the greatest fi nancial benefit to a wealthy student while offering no additional support to low-income and working-class students with greater financial need," according to IHEP's analyses. …

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