Free college tuition programs like the one lawmakers approved in the final hours of Maryland’s General Assembly session are gaining national momentum, but experts say such statewide initiatives are still too new to determine their long-term benefit.
The idea is becoming more popular as American families struggle with rising tuition and student debt.
“Going into an election year, everyone wants to do it,” said Joni E. Finney, director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.
“The middle class is very worried about paying for college for their kids,” she said. “Policymakers are paying attention, from both parties.”
State lawmakers on Monday approved a bill that could make thousands of Marylanders eligible for free tuition at community colleges. Gov. Larry Hogan has not yet said whether he will sign it into law.
Even before its passage, other programs were taking shape in Maryland. In Baltimore, the Mayor’s Scholars Program launched by Mayor Catherine Pugh offers all city high school graduates tuition-free community college, beginning this year. And last month, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz proposed the College Promise program, which would cover community college tuition for students who meet certain income and academic requirements. It has not yet been approved by the County Council.
According to the national College Promise Campaign, 200 communities have so-called “Promise” programs and 16 states have their own initiatives.
In recent years, states including New York, Tennessee, Oregon and Minnesota have enacted statewide programs to cover tuition at public institutions.
“These programs are pretty new, so we don’t have years and years of data,” Finney said.
Some studies do exist, however. In a report published last year by the Institute for Research on Higher Education, Finney found that freshman enrollment across Tennessee’s public institutions increased by more than 10 percent in the first year of its program, Tennessee Promise.
Announced in 2014, the program aims to make enrollment free at community college and technical schools. It’s part of a broader array of policies in Tennessee designed to improve educational attainment. The policies have received bipartisan support and been championed by the state’s business community, Finney said.
While many places launching a free-tuition program have seen an enrollment bump, it is unclear how many of the students stay on to graduate, said Debbie Cochrane, vice president of the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success.
“A lot of these programs are still too new to assess,” Cochrane said.
Cochrane said making college more affordable and accessible are “incredibly important goals,” but students can still face financial barriers because of other expenses associated with college — books, transportation and living costs — that aren’t covered by these programs.
Eligibility requirements for tuition-free initiatives vary across the country. Many of those conditions are aimed at keeping government costs down, Cochrane said.
In the Maryland program, students would need to have a high school grade point average of 2.3. They would have to enroll within two years of finishing high school or of obtaining a GED, and would need to take 12 credit hours of courses.
Maryland’s program would be a “last dollar” scholarship — meaning the state would award the funds after all other financial aid options are pursued. The program is expected to cost $15 million a year, and would give community college scholarships of up to $5,000 to students who meet income and other eligibility requirements. Another $2 million over five years would provide grants to current students to finish their degrees at community and four-year institutions.
The plan would more than double state scholarship money available to low-income community college students, according to the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.
Seventy percent of community college students work, which often prolongs the time it takes for them to complete their studies, said Bernie Sadusky, the association’s executive director.
Howard Community College student Parsa Samadani said he knows many people who have left school or can only take one class per semester because they have to work. Free tuition would help them finish up and “move on with their lives,” he said.
Sadusky believes the program would also boost the economy.
“It’s good for Maryland,” Sadusky said. “If we’re going to compete, we have to have a skilled workforce.”
While many of the statewide programs are still new, some smaller jurisdictions around the country have had free-tuition initiatives in place for years.
The Kalamazoo Promise, started in 2005 in Kalamazoo, Mich., offers students who attend the city’s public schools free tuition to state colleges and universities, as well as more than a dozen private liberal-arts colleges. Funded by anonymous donors, the program is open to students of all income levels.
In a 2015 paper, researchers with the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo estimated that the program had increased students’ chances of enrolling in a four-year college by 34 percent. For low-income students, the effect was even higher, increasing attendance by more than 50 percent.
Tim Ready, director of the Lewis Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations at Western Michigan University, says free-tuition programs are a positive step — but not enough to reduce inequality. He said out-of-school factors related to student socioeconomic circumstances have been shown to play a dominant role in achievement.
Programs like the Kalamazoo Promise are “necessary, but not sufficient, to boost higher education outcomes for students who’ve been disadvantaged,” he said.
Particularly for poor and non-traditional students, obstacles to finishing college are often due to “how life gets in the way,” he said. For a student who lacks resources, a car breaking down, for example, can turn into a crisis.
The Kalamazoo Promise did reverse a decline in the city’s public school enrollment, he said. It has since increased 25 percent.
Many had hoped the program also would help increase real estate values, but “that’s generally been disappointing,” he said.
Making community college free “is one way of lessening income inequality and the inequality of access to opportunity in our society,” Ready said.
“I think that anything that does that is good,” Ready said. “It’s just that the inequalities are so pervasive that any one initiative by itself is going to be of … somewhat limited effectiveness if you don’t take into account these other things.”
Baltimore Sun staffers Scott Dance and Lloyd Fox contributed to this article.