President Biden is reportedly considering including free community college tuition in his second infrastructure proposal. Research on College Promise programs has shown that free community college programs can lead more students to enroll. But to make significant improvements on college graduation rates, research shows students need more support than tuition alone.

Across the country, there are more than 300 “Free College” or “College Promise” programs, in which students in specific geographic areas are eligible for free tuition at local colleges. These programs have become a popular response to growing national concern about the costs of college and subsequent student debt loads.

The offer of free tuition can increase students’ college attendance. Some studies of College Promise programs have found large impacts on students’ likelihood of enrolling in college. Most low-income students are already eligible for federal need-based Pell grants, which typically cover the cost of tuition in two-year colleges. But advocates of College Promise say that the clear messaging that college tuition is free will lead more students to attend college, and to do so with less financial anxiety.

Indeed, studies have shown that College Promise programs can help reduce students’ financial anxiety about tuition and fees and can reduce debt. Most College Promise programs are “last dollar,” meaning that they cover tuition after Pell has already been applied. By contrast, most current federal proposals are designed to enhance rather than supplant Pell grants, which is a thoughtful design choice likely to be most beneficial to low-income students. Adding free tuition while keeping Pell grants would allow Pell-eligible, low-income students to continue to use their Pell grants on the other expenses of college, such as supplies, textbooks, and transportation to and from school—all identified as costs that hinder low-income students’ persistence and graduation rates.

Read the full article about improving college graduation rates by Alyssa Ratledge at MDRC.