Despite the attention paid to the impending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and the visibility of congressional hearings on college finances, it is the states that have primary responsibility for US higher education.

College prices, the cost of living, available financial aid, and college opportunities vary dramatically from state to state. The result is that opportunities for accessing a high-quality, affordable college education depend on where you live. Many states are developing innovative strategies to break down financial barriers for students.

States make headlines for promising “free” college. The Tennessee Promise was the first statewide program to pledge to fill the gap between federal and state grant aid and the cost of community college tuition for students meeting certain requirements.These programs send a clear message that college is affordable, but they frequently direct funds toward students who may not need financial help. Free college programs tend to help students whose incomes are too high to qualify for need-based aid. In contrast, federal Pell grants and other need-based grants provide their largest awards to students with the lowest incomes.

Other state efforts to reduce financial barriers to college deserve more attention than they get. Well-designed need-based state grant programs can target funds to students with limited resources and provide incentives for them to prepare for college.Some states are focusing on improving high school students’ academic preparation for college or making it easier for students who begin at community colleges to transfer to four-year colleges.

The conversation about making college affordable cannot just be about price. It must be about students and institutions having the resources—financial and academic—to meet their goals. States should seek out examples that promise more than a low price.

Read the full article about making college affordable by Sandy Baum at The Urban Institute.