Skip to main content

The Center for Community Capital on occasion publishes blog posts written by CCC Graduate Fellows. This post, written by William Curran-Groome (MCRP 2020) & Amie Sigmann (MSW 2020) looks at the emerging trends driving tuition-free colleges and the ways in which international and national actors are working to make higher education more affordable.

Free college is not a novel concept, either in the U.S. or abroad, but it has made a remarkable leap to the forefront of American political debate in recent years as leading progressive candidates have proposed policies to cover or significantly reduce tuition, fees, living expenses, and debt for higher education.

In this post, we highlight some of the different conceptualizations of “free college,” look at existing programs, and consider barriers to its widespread adoption in the U.S.

So what exactly is “free college”?

Proposed and existing programs operationalize “free college” in various ways, including by:

  • Who is eligible;
  • Which types of schools are eligible;
  • Which types of costs are eligible;
  • How much of these costs are covered; and
  • Whether costs are covered prospectively, retrospectively (i.e., debt cancellation), or both.

Programs frequently place restrictions across one or more of these domains. For example, many programs set income eligibility thresholds; only cover tuition, not fees and living expenses; have maximums for debt cancellation; or apply only to in-state public colleges and universities or two-year community colleges. Some programs also apply additional requirements, such as minimum GPA standards or obligations to work in-state after graduation (Dickler, 2019).

These program design choices have implications for political feasibility and longevity, total costs, and the extent to which different groups of students and institutions of higher education benefit.

Primary Goals

Many variations on free college at the local, state, federal, and international levels share a common set of motivating factors and desired outcomes.


Proposals to reduce or eliminate some or all of the costs of two- and four-year degrees frequently cite issues of equity (Warren, 2019). Low-income students and students of color are less likely to graduate from programs in which they are enrolled, more likely to be saddled with significant debt burdens after graduation, and are over-represented at for-profit schools as well as schools that are less selective with regard to acceptance rates (Espinosa et al., 2019). By reducing up-front costs and interest rates on loans, proposals seek to ensure that sociodemographic factors such as race and family income, among others, do not influence who is able to pursue further education.


Many such proposals also compare the contemporary costs of higher education with those from previous generations, noting that increases in tuition, fees, and other costs associated with college degrees have significantly outpaced increases in wages (Friends of Bernie Sanders, 2019). This rhetorical frame argues the U.S. should continue to extend to current students the same benefits of higher education at the same real costs.

Economic Growth

A third angle argues that increasing the educational attainment of the U.S. workforce and reducing or eliminating student debt is a fiscally sound public investment. By this logic, subsidizing investments in human capital will result in returns in terms of wages and economic output, while removing debt will effectively act as a stimulus for increased growth, including by enabling home purchases and small business formation (Warren, 2019).

International Efforts

The cost of higher education’s impact on educational attainment and success is hard to determine given the number of compounding variables. However, in some cases, the argument that a more educated society is a better society leads universities to lower or eliminate tuition costs. In countries where public universities are tuition-free, communities benefit from the tax revenues from better educated, and subsequently, higher paid workers, which may counterbalance the cost of providing free public education (Kamenetz & Westervelt, 2016).

Several European countries provide some form of tuition-free college for students through public universities. Some countries offer free tuition to students regardless of nationality, provided they take courses in a certain language or pursue specific degrees. In Finland, for example, public universities are tuition-free for students who take courses in either Finnish or Swedish. Other countries base free tuition on citizenship status. Austria offers free tuition for EU citizens and Sweden offers free tuition to students with Swedish citizenship or “European Area” citizenship (EU countries, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway). While these standards are generally mandated across all public universities, some countries – most notably, Germany – allow individual universities to determine their approach (Study.EU, 2020). Many European Universities require entrance exams for admission, under the assumption that individuals who are the highest performing on the exams will be the most likely to complete their degrees and produce positive labor outcomes. Under this theory, the amount of public money spent on tuition is limited, and the likelihood of collective benefit is maximized (McGrath et al., 2015)

While some of the most well-known examples of tuition-free college are from European nations, similar programs are found across the globe. Several nations are now exploring options for implementing tuition-free public education. In Japan, where college entrance rates are considered low, compulsory education extends only through middle school. Afterwards, families bear the brunt of responsibility for financing the student’s schooling. To encourage investment in education, Japan plans to implement free tuition for students from less affluent households. Despite the success of the 2010 Act on Free Tuition at Public High Schools and the High School Enrollment Support Fund, proponents of free public postsecondary education in Japan have many barriers to overcome. These include historical influences like private education’s role in forming postwar Japan, as well as social attitudes regarding who deserves an education and at what personal cost. However, the largest barrier is a familiar one – a lack of available government funding to shift towards further subsidizing education (Tanaka, 2019).

Free College in the United States

In the United States, free tuition and the affordability of higher education have become major concerns for many citizens. Debates surrounding the implementation of free tuition policies and programs are taking place on a grand scale as presidential candidates make affordable postsecondary education a key platform issue (NASFAA, 2020). Despite this, there is little existing policy at the federal level regarding “free college.” Instead, most college tuition subsidy programs in the United States operate at the state or local level.

Beginning with the Kalamazoo Promise program in 2005, various first- and last-dollar grant programs have been established at the state level to help recent high school graduates access affordable postsecondary education (McMiller-Adams, 2015). “First-dollar programs” refer to funds that are provided to beneficiaries before any other types of grant funding. “Last-dollar programs refers to grant funds that are applied after students have exhausted all other avenues of grant funding (First-Dollar vs. Last-Dollar Promise Models | ACCT, n.d.). As of 2019, 20 states have implemented some form of free college program. Many of these are statewide College Promise programs, which cover tuition and fees for community colleges and some trade schools. Additionally, 26 state legislatures are attempting to either establish or expand College Promise in their own states (Kerr, 2019).

Most students wishing to make use of a College Promise program will face eligibility requirements. Typically, qualifiers include a low- or middle-income family background and/or a minimum GPA, SAT or ACT score. Some state programs, like the Arkansas Future Grant and New York’s Excelsior Scholarship, mandate that students who receive funding remain in-state for some time after they complete their programs. Notably, New York’s Excelsior program is the only last-dollar grant program in the United States that benefits students at the four-year level, rather than just the two-year level (Powell & Kerr, 2019).

There are varying reviews of College Promise Programs, but there is a research base to confirm that these free or low-cost college opportunities consistently increase enrollment and completion rates for students. More macro- economic impacts, such as employment outcomes and eventual tax revenues, are largely dependent on the local community environment in which the programs are implemented. In some cases, the initial price of such an initiative can be a tough sell for community-level policy makers and stakeholders (Ma et al., 2016).

Efforts in North Carolina

In North Carolina, two state-level programs provide students with free or reduced tuition to NC postsecondary schools: NC Promise and Career & College Promise. NC Promise allows undergraduate in-state students to pay only $500 in tuition (and out-of-state students to pay $2,500 in tuition) per semester at three North Carolina universities: Elizabeth City State University, UNC-Pembroke, and Western Carolina University. Prorated tuition rates are also available for part-time and transfer students, and there are no eligibility requirements to take advantage of the program. The state of North Carolina formed this program to meet its goal of “helping meet demands for a well-educated workforce, increasing recruitment of high-performing out-of-state students, and decreasing college indebtedness” (Western Carolina University, 2019).

Career & College Promise (CCP) is another state-level program for qualified North Carolina students of high school age. CCP allows students to get assistance with their college and tech school preparation in three ways: college transfer, technical careers, and innovative high schools. The college transfer pathway allows qualifying students to pursue tuition-free course credits that will count toward an A.A. or A.S. degree. These credits are transferable to any public or participating private college or university in North Carolina. Students can also earn tuition-free credits at an NC Community College while still in high school that may count toward a technical credential, certificate or diploma. Cooperative Innovative High Schools in North Carolina offer the third pathway, allowing students to earn tuition-free college credits on the high school campus (NC Community Colleges, 2020).

Future Prospects

Existing “free college” programs across the U.S. provide evidence that the concept has popular appeal and political feasibility, including in states that are traditionally more conservative and resistant to publicly funded programs, such as Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas (Dickler, 2019). As these programs become increasingly prevalent, they will contribute to the relatively small but growing body of evidence describing the costs and outcomes associated with “free college”, including how these may vary across programs, student populations, geographies, and time (Perna, 2016). Indeed, as program administrators, politicians, and funders seek to optimize outcomes across oft-conflicting domains, including program accessibility; graduation rates; post-program employment and earnings; and cost, they provide new opportunities to study and better understand what works for whom, as well as how and why this is the case.

Short of a radical shift in federal policy, it is unlikely that we will see any widespread adoption in the near future of the most expensive free college models—those with few eligibility criteria, wide choice among schools, and full coverage of tuition and fees. Yet, state– and municipality-initiated programs implemented since the Kalamazoo Promise was first offered in 2005 may signal a growing trend as communities continue to grapple with responses to the increasingly unaffordable costs of higher education (U.S. Department of Education, 2019). We look forward to developing a stronger understanding of the role “free college” programs can and should play, in tandem with other efforts, in promoting more equitable higher education and employment outcomes.

William Curran-Groome is a candidate for a Master’s in City and Regional Planning from UNC and Amie Sigmann is a candidate for a Master’s in Social Work from the UNC School of Social Work. They were both 2019-2020 Graduate Fellows at the Center for Community Capital, where Amie researched unique approaches to minimizing student loan default at the university level, and William worked with the Global Social Development Initiative analyzing data from an employability and financial capability project in South Africa.


Dickler, J. (2019, September 5). Tuition-free college is now a reality in nearly 20 states. Retrieved from

Espinosa, Lorelle L., Jonathan M. Turk, Morgan Taylor, and Hollie M. Chessman. 2019. Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education: A Status Report. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

First-Dollar vs. Last-Dollar Promise Models | ACCT. (n.d.). Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

Friends of Bernie Sanders. (2019). Free college, cancel debt. Retrieved from

Kamenetz, A., & Westervelt, E. (2016, February 17). Fact-Check: Bernie Sanders promises free college. Will it work? Retrieved from

Kerr, E. (2019, April 24). What free college could mean for you. Retrieved from

Ma, J., Baum, S., Pender, M., & Welch, M. (2016). A Review of College Promise Programs: Evidence from the Midwest.

McGrath, C. H., Henham, M. L., Corbett, A., Durazzi, N., Frearson, M., Janta, B., Kamphuis, B. W., Katashiro, E., Brankovic, N., Guerin, B., Manville, C., Schwartz, I., & Schweppenstedde, D. (2015). Higher Education Entrance Qualifications and Exams in Europe: A Comparison.

McMiller-Adams, M. (2015). About the Kalamazoo Promise. Retrieved from

National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. (2020, April 10). 2020 presidential candidates’ higher education proposals. Retrieved from

NC Community Colleges. (2020). Career & College Promise. Retrieved from

Perna, L. W. (2016). Delivering on the promise: Structuring college promise programs to promote higher education attainment for students from underserved groups.

Powell, F., & Kerr, E. (2019, August 29). 24 states that offer tuition-free college programs. Retrieved from

Study.EU. (2020). Your gateway to universities in Europe. Retrieved from

Tanaka, R. (2019). Recent debates on public-private cost sharing for higher education in Japan. Social Science Japan Journal, 22(2), 271–276. doi: 10.1093/ssjj/jyz010

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Digest of Education Statistics, 2017 (NCES 2018-070), Chapter 3.

Warren, E. (2019, April 22). Affordable higher education for all. Retrieved from

Western Carolina University. (2019). NC Promise: An innovative approach to affordability. Retrieved from

Topics(s): Economic Mobility, Higher Education, Voices of Student Loan Borrowers
Comments are closed.