Before COVID-19 threw a wrench in the gears of the U.S. economy, the equity-focused free college movement was picking up steam.

Yet, in too many states, the free college promise remains a promise unkept. And now, looming budget shortfalls resulting from the pandemic threaten to set back the equity-focused free college movement.

In a new report – A Promise Worth Keeping: An Updated Equity-Driven Framework for Free College Programs – The Education Trust revisits a 2018 rating of statewide college promise programs to review several new programs against an equity-focused framework.

According to the report, only two states, including Michigan, have existing or proposed free college programs designed specifically and exclusively with adults and returning students in mind: Tennessee (Tennessee Reconnect) and Michigan (Michigan Reconnect). Michigan Reconnect, which is on track for implementation this year, targets adult and returning students.

Top-line findings of A Promise Worth Keeping include the following:

  • There are eight more statewide free college programs today than there were three years ago.
  • Most programs still are limited to just covering tuition and not fees, books, and living costs.
  • Just a third of statewide promise programs provide four years of tuition and include bachelor’s degree programs.
  • Only two states have designed statewide free college programs specifically for adult and returning students.
  • Half of free college programs exclude undocumented students or students who are incarcerated; these students face higher college costs as they are ineligible for federal aid.

A Promise Worth Keeping includes five broad recommendations for statewide free college programs:

  1. Include all students – no matter how long it’s been since high school, whether they’re part-time or full-time, or whether they’re undocumented or incarcerated.
  2. Go beyond tuition – cover the full cost of college, including fees, learning materials, and living expenses like food and housing, or at least cover tuition and allow students to use other financial aid like Pell Grants for these costs.
  3. Make improvements over time – state leaders can and should build political support to make free college programs more generous and more equitable.
  4. Be transparent – about who benefits and who doesn’t, including by race, ethnicity, and income.
  5. Invest in student success – that means, in part, guaranteeing equitable funding for the colleges serving large percentages of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.

The report’s authors also urge the federal government to team up with states to ensure free college promises are kept. The federal role is even more important now, given the tough budget choices many states will have to make because of the economic downturn resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Free college opportunities alone cannot address racial injustice, but if designed properly, they could help dismantle barriers to higher education and create economic opportunity for those who have been historically excluded by legal roadblocks and financial constraints.

The full report, including a special section on free college for students who are incarcerated, is available at

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