Giving Compass' Take:

• Jill Barshay explains that many "free college" programs fail to help the students with the greatest need and how they programs can better help low-income students succeed. 

• How can funders help to guide the development of more effective free college programs? 

• Learn how restrictions blunt the impact of free college tuition in New York

“Free college” is an increasingly popular idea to help students afford higher education. Sen. Bernie Sanders made it a centerpiece of his 2016 presidential campaign. But well before then, cities — usually using private, philanthropic funding — had been experimenting with innovative programs to boost college graduation rates by promising to pay tuition for students who study hard in high school.

Details vary in both the local and statewide programs. Some cover all tuition and fees; others don’t. Some just cover two-year community colleges, others four-year institutions as well. Some only give assistance to low-income students, others only to students who meet certain academic thresholds and others to a combination of those with need and merit. The rules for dispensing the scholarship money can be controversial. Many programs require students to exhaust other forms of aid first, such as Federal Pell grants and state aid, which are often large enough to cover community college tuition for low-income students. That means many low-income students might not receive any extra money from these “last dollar” rules, as they are called.

To give meaningful help to low-income students, Ed Trust recommends that states should allow them to use this “tuition” aid for living expenses, and that states should cover tuition for four years of college, not just the first two. They also propose that low-income adults should be able to tap into this tuition aid to return to college, and not restrict it only to recent high school graduates or those who’ve never attempted college in the past.

Changing the rules of these free tuition programs to give low-income students four years of free college might be too expensive for many states to fund. But it’s increasingly clear that “free college,” as it is often currently implemented, may be more of a marketing message than a policy that will boost the education level of the future American workforce.

Read the full article about free college programs by Jill Barshay at The Hechinger Report.