Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced proudly in August that 100,000 people had applied for her state’s free college program, Michigan Reconnect.

The program, which covers community college tuition for Michigan residents age 25 or older to get them to go back to school, is “a game-changer,” Whitmer said, “not only for the people enrolled in the program, but also for their families, small businesses and the state.”

More than 24,000 of those applicants have enrolled in the program, and 2,000 have completed a degree or a certificate, the state’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity says. It’s part of a wave of 32 such “free college” programs nationwide, according to the Campaign for Free College Tuition — a third of them added in the last five years.

But there’s a hitch. Most statewide programs, including Michigan’s, don’t necessarily help the lowest-income students finish or pay for college.

Many cover only the tuition that is still outstanding after federal aid is used up. These are called “last-dollar” free college programs. Since federal aid to the lowest-income students — usually in the form of Pell Grants — almost always covers the full cost of community college tuition, low-income students don’t benefit, while higher-income students do.

Despite a perception that free college programs are meant for lower-income students, “the only students who would qualify are students who aren’t eligible for Pell — wealthier students,” said Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education policy at the Education Trust. “These become messaging bills a lot of the time,” he said of the preponderance of free college legislation.

What low-income students really need is help with other expenses, such as housing, books and transportation — things free college programs don’t often cover. Those essentials account for about 80 percent of the cost of attending community college, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Read the full article about low-income college students by Lilah Burke at The Hechinger Report.