Giving Compass' Take:

• Wayne D'Orio discusses the implications of free college programs for four-year schools: the shift means that schools need to revamp their services. 

• How can funders help schools best serve students? 

• Learn about the results of free college programs


Are free college programs hurting four-year schools? Data from two of the earliest programs suggests the effect is minimal, but schools could benefit from recalibrating their services.

Free college is in the spotlight as the country looks to stem the growth of rising higher education costs. Around half of states offer their residents some form of "promise" program, and some 300 local programs guarantee students tuition-free college at public, and sometimes even private, institutions.

Yet for all the momentum behind the movement, little is known about its long-term impact on college enrollment. Even less is understood about how it will affect four-year public universities.

Early reports from Tennessee and Oregon — two states with some of the longest-running free college plans — show such programs' first year can lead to lower enrollment at state four-year schools. But that effect seems to flatten out almost entirely by the second year.

Trying to tie up a wide swath of programs with one bow is hard to accomplish, however. Expanded access to free community college across California has stressed many of its four-year institutions. That's caused California State University, Fresno to dramatically raise the bar for acceptance. Meanwhile, officials at the University of Tennessee were so impressed with the state's promise program successes that the system is rolling out its version of the program in the fall of 2020.

"I'm not sure we know the [impact of these programs] with rigorous studies yet," said Beth Akers, senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute.

Although the impact of free college on four-year institutions is uncertain, their enrollment levels are already threatened by other factors, said Martha Kanter, executive director of the College Promise Campaign. With some estimates predicting a decrease in the number of high school graduates ahead, she said, "If you are a college or university state-funded based on enrollment, you’re going to be scrambling."

Schools don't only need to change how they recruit students, taking into account both adult learners and promise program students, Kanter said. They also must revamp services to meet these students' varying needs, such as offering babysitting for adult learners' children and counseling for transfer students.

"The historic complaint is, 'They're taking my students,'" she said. "Frankly, those days are over. There are too many people who aren't getting the education they need."

Read the full article about the implications of free college programs for four-year schools by Wayne D'Orio at Education Dive.