By Henry Kronk July 12, 2018
Since Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential run in 2016, liberal and progressive Americans have added another initiative to their platform: free college. Promise programs, which generally cover college tuition and fees for certain populations, are now in effect in 19 states. Opposition to adopting these measures frequently meets the same roadblocks as other social welfare programs. Fiscal conservatives say they’re too expensive and unsustainable. But a new report from The Century Foundation’s Senior Fellow Jen Mishory paints a more nuanced picture of promise programs’ popularity and political viability.
Debate around promise programs tends to treat them as ex nihilo political experiments. But several free college programs have been around for several years, and they can serve as an example to others. In her study, Mishory looked at six promise programs during “what would have been the greatest test of fiscal sustainability in recent decades: the Great Recession.”
Delaware, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Oklahoma all had promise programs in place before the fall of 2007. In the fallout, states did all they could to shave the fat off their budgets.
Education especially took a hit. Resources allocated per full-time equivalent student (FTE) in higher education fell in 48 states throughout the recession. Some of the states in the study saw exceptional reductions. Delaware decreased their higher education funding by 29.8%, Missouri cut back by 29.4%, and Louisiana—the state with arguably the most liberal program of the six—cut back by 38.1%.
One might reasonably expect those cuts to result in reduced funding for promise programs, but that is not the case.
Between FY 2007 and FY 2013, “The funding per full-time equivalent (“FTE”) student for all six existing Promise programs grew between 12 and 142 percent, while overall appropriations per FTE student for higher education fell in each state between 18 and 38 percent,” Mishory writes.
That doesn’t necessarily speak to issues of balancing the budget, but it does indicate that these programs have strong staying power, even in periods of financial turmoil.
According to Mishory, who conducted interviews with lawmakers from the six states who had a hand in this programs, four strategies contributed to their longevity.
These are: presenting the program as a contract between the state and its citizens; using budgetary mechanics to protect these programs; opening up aid to financially and geographically diverse communities; and using a defined benefit structure to help individuals and schools pave the way for learners to benefit.
Still, while these programs all survived the Great Recession, they vary in other areas. One of the most important restrictions is the household income cap for who can get tuition covered. Mississippi had the lowest at $39,500. Meanwhile, Delaware, Missouri, and Louisiana had no cap at all.
Eligibility restrictions in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Missouri, require recipients to pass a threshold with their GPA, and standardized tests, must be old enough, and must be studying full time. In Oklahoma, recipients must merely have a given GPA and be old enough.
“In other words,” Mishory writes, “none of these programs are truly universal, and so the design features that each state includes impacts who benefits the most. The disparate program designs can help provide lessons learned on how the varying definitions of “universality” might impact sustainability, and whether a free college plan structured to reach more low- and middle-income families retains support.”
Mishory’s report effectively dispels the myth that promise programs are not viable or sustainable funding solutions for states. But the report also describes how finding the correct fit can be a difficult process. In the end, the promise programs described vary widely in scope. If free college is a priority, lawmakers need to divine what measures will benefit their constituents the most.
Read the full report here.
Cover Image: Jules Marchioni, Unsplash.