Policy Summary 

This policy would provide for an allocation of funding (typically federal) that would apply to the elimination of tuition and fees for higher education expenses. Typically, these policies include a focus on public institutions with a strong emphasis on technical or 2-year education. Other provisions offered in some policy models include a cap on student loan interests for those expenses incurred by the student and paid for through educational loans. 

Case for Equity

The GI Bill is credited as one of the most impactful economic mobility programs in US history. The program’s focus on building the human capital of veterans contributed significantly to unprecedented growth in the American middle class in the post-World War years. The argument for the creation and expansion of free college programs relies on that experience and its example of paving the way for widespread upward mobility for millions of Americans. 

Given that there exists a significant skills gap in today’s workforce and the fact that jobs increasingly require credentials beyond high school, there is a tremendous need for large-scale investment in higher education. That investment must recognize nearly a century of underfunding in low wealth K-12 schools, a practice that disadvantages millions of low-income families and families of color along with rural residents all over America. Research on free college programs has demonstrated effectiveness at increasing college-going rates for children of all races. But it has shown particularly positive impacts on children from low-income backgrounds and children of color who are less likely to have the financial means to afford college either by virtue of family savings or investments. 

Return on Investment

Return on Investment for this policy is rated as HIGH.


Available research consistently concludes that free college programs can return significant value to individuals in the form of educational persistence, higher educational attainment, and lifetime earnings (Page et al 2018). Other studies have also found significant returns in the form of educational performance and student behavior outcomes (Bartik and Lachowska 2016) as well as value to communities in the form of decreased out-migration, impacting home values, increasing local human capital, and potentially impacting business location decisions (Miller-Adams and Smith 2018). While the research is relatively young, there is reason to surmise that these effects translate into increased income and sales tax collections and decreased expenditures in safety net programs and other government expenditures.  

The studies show positive returns to not only federal but state and local economies as well. For example, research from the Upjohn Institute looking at a state-level program (Michigan’s Kalamazoo Promise program) show an 11.3% return on the investment, and a lifetime participant earnings increase of 4.7 times program costs paid (Bartik et al 2016). The Georgetown Center estimates that 10 years after implementation, a national version of the program could produce “$371.4 billion in federal and state tax revenue and private after-tax earnings gains of $866.7 billion.” 


Research Base

The research base is rated as being HIGH. While there are questions to be raised about the generalizability of many of the findings and the inconsistencies in the research, these issues stem in part from the tremendous variation in model design, and the fact approach to evaluation in some cases. As such, these limitations don’t detract from the overall value of the literature which has provided us with tremendous insights.  

There is tremendous variation across the research in terms of the types of models evaluated. The research landscape reflects that variation as well with the wealth of research available on free college programs, and a correspondingly tremendous variation in their methodologies. It is noteworthy that few RCTs exist, while a number of quasi-experimental studies have been completed (see Savary-Billings and Harris et al).  

However, the inconsistent findings bear noting. For example, results are inconsistent with respect to the ability of programs to impact high school enrollment (Upjohn) but are much more consistent with respect to findings on college enrollment outcomes. This also highlights the importance of fidelity to the research that shows promising model elements like broad program access and last dollar funding mechanisms. Overall, the lack of long-term data is concerning (owing to the relative newness of the programs). As such, only a few studies have examined the impact on degree attainment (ibid). But in those cases, the policy was shown to increase degree attainment. Nonetheless, a second subset of research studies relies on modeling to project the impact of policies on long-term outcomes, and it tends toward a positive assessment of the potential of these policies

State & Local Ease of Implementation

This policy is rated as having a MODERATE level of implementation difficulty.

A growing number of state and local models have proliferated over the past decade. That has put competitive pressures on neighboring states and raised the awareness of the need for human capital investments, thus making the policy more appealing to policymakers. The policy does require some reforms to both post-secondary and K-12 institution practices in a given locality in addition to standing up an administrative apparatus. The ability of the policy to be implemented at local and state levels adds to its state and local ease of implementation (greater number of possible policy routes).

Exploratory Steps for State Leaders

Examine Funding Models 
There are a number of free college models in operation across the country. Policymakers must wrestle with decisions between 2- or 4-year models, eligibility criteria, first or last dollar funding models, geography-based or statewide, and private or publicly funded, with funding being one of the most important decisions to be made. The Educational Testing Service compiled a summary of the 5 funding models in operation nationwide.     

Whether and how a program can be scaled is an important consideration. The Tennessee Promise is one of the most well-known programs that serve as a great case study on scaling free college initiatives. The program began as a local program but has since grown to be a statewide program with dynamic results.   

Institutional Alignment
A critical step in consideration of implementing a free college program is aligning the higher education system with other important systems (workforce and economic development). The Education Commission of the States provides a great tool for examining this process.

Innovations Across America

Michigan | Michigan ReConnect 

Action Space: State (Governor/Legislature)

Cost: $30 million

Mechanism: Enabling Legislation 2019 Public Act 68 of 2020

Michigan Reconnect was proposed by Governor Whitmer and subsequently passed the state legislature in 2019. The scholarship program pays tuition for residents to attend in-district community college to complete an apprenticeship, certificate, or Associate’s degree. For those attending out-of-district, the program provides large tuition discounts. The program uniquely targets residents who are older than 25 to address the state’s education and skills deficits.  

  • First versus Last Dollar: The program is a “last dollar” program that leverages all federal aid a student may be eligible for before being applied to the student’s outstanding attendance costs. However, the program only applies to tuition, fees, and books and does not cover the total cost of attendance. Along with cost considerations, policymakers must weigh the pros and cons of first versus last dollar grant programs as part of their deliberations.  

Virginia  G3 Program 

Action Space: State Level (Governor/Legislature) 

Cost: $36 million  

Mechanism: Enabling Legislation 2021 HB 2204  

In March of 2021, Virginia enacted legislation creating the G3—“Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back”—initiative. While the program is a last-dollar program that kicks in after federal aid, it also provides additional individual grants of $900 per semester for things like food, transportation, and childcare. The program is restricted to specific high-demand fields in the state’s economy. 

  • Providing Institutional Support: The program further incentivized institutions by providing performance payments for student outcomes. Schools receive payments for grant recipients that completes 30 credit hours, as well as payments for every student who earns an Associate’s degree. 

Kalamazoo Promise 

Action Space: Local (Private)

Cost: $10-11 million annually

Mechanism: Establishment of Investment Fund

The Kalamazoo Promise is one of the most well-known free college programs in the country. It was launched by a group of anonymous local donors in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Since its inception, it has inspired the creation of at least 30 other locally driven free college initiatives. The program guarantees free college for Michigan students from Kalamazoo to attend institutions in the state.  The program is a “first-dollar” program that applies to the student’s costs before all other eligible aid is applied. It has been demonstrated to increase college enrollment, college credits attempted, and credential attainment.


Assessments & Plans

Inventory of Programs State by State
College Promise. 2020. Catalog of Local and State College Programs 

Equity Inventory of Free College Programs
The Education Trust: 2020. An Updated Equity-Driven Framework for Free College Programs.

References & Further Study
Hendren, N., and Sprung-Keyser, B. 2020. A Unified Welfare Analysis of Government Policies 

Marginal Value of Public Funds (MVPF).    

Bartik, T.; Hershbein, B.; Lachowska, M. 2016. The Merits Of Universal Scholarships: Benefit-Cost Evidence From The Kalamazoo Promise. Upjohn Institute Working Paper, No. 16-252, W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research  

Swanson, E., Watson, A., Ritter, R, Nichols, M. 2016. Promises Fulfilled? A Systematic Review of the Impacts of Promise Programs.  The University of Arkansas, Department of Education Reform   

Jones, T., Ramirez-Mendoza, J., Jackson, V. 2020. A Promise Worth Keeping. An Updated Equity-Driven Framework for Free College Programs. The Education Trust  

Page, L., Iriti, J., Lowry, D., Anthony, A. 2018. “The Promise of Place-Based Investment in Postsecondary Access and Success: Investigating the Impact of the Pittsburgh Promise. The Education Trust      

Savary-Billings, M. 2018. Free College for All: The Impact of Promise Programs On College Access and Success by. A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Higher Education) in The University of Michigan

Miller-Adams, M. 2018. Promise Scholarship Programs and Local Prosperity Promise Scholarship Programs and Local Prosperity. W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 

Carnevale, A., Sablan, J., Gulish, A., Quinn, M., Cinquegrani, G. 2020. The Dollars and Sense of Free College. Georgetown Center for Workforce. 

Demings, David. 2019. The Economics of Free College. Economics for Inclusive Prosperity. Economics for Inclusive Prosperity 

Shapiro, R. and Yoder, I. 2021. The Impact of a National Program of Free Tuition at Public Community Colleges and Free Tuition for Most Students at Public Four-Year Colleges and Universities on College Enrollments, Graduations, and the Economy. Sonecon. Washington, DC 

Bound, J., Turner, S. 2002. Going to War and Going to College: Did World War II and the G.I. Bill Increase Educational Attainment for Returning Veterans? Journal of Labor Economics. Volume 20, Number 4 

Bartik and Lachowska. The Short-Term Effects of the Kalamazoo Promise Scholarship on Student Outcomes. W.E. Upjohn Institute  

Bartik, T. Hershbein, B. Lachowska, M. 2016.  The Merits of Universal Scholarships: Benefit-Cost Evidence from the Kalamazoo Promise. Upjohn Institute working paper; 16-252 

Harris, D., Farmer-Hinton, R., Kim, D., Diamond, J., Blakely Reavis, T., Krupa Rifelj, K., Lustick, H., Carl, B. 2018. The Promise Of Free College: Evidence On The Design, Implementation, and Effects of a Performance-Based College Aid Program From a Randomized Control Trial. Brookings Institution. 

Expanding Voting Rights

Guaranteed Jobs