The University of Texas at Austin made recent national news by promising free tuition for in-state undergraduate students whose families make $65,000 or less per year.
The initiative, which will begin in the fall of 2020, was made possible by members of the University of Texas System Board of Regents who unanimously voted to establish a $160 million endowment.
“Recognizing both the need for improved access to higher education and the high value of a UT Austin degree, we are dedicating a distribution from the Permanent University Fund to establish an endowment that will directly benefit students and make their degrees more affordable,” Kevin Eltife, chairman of the Board of Regents, said in a statement after the vote. “This will benefit students of our great state for years to come.”
In addition to helping send an estimated 8,600 low-income students per year to UT Austin tuition-free, the endowment provides assured tuition support for 5,700 additional students who come from families making up to $125,000 a year.
“There is no greater engine of social and economic mobility than a college degree, and this initiative ensures that more Texans will benefit from a high-quality UT Austin education,” University Chancellor James Milliken said in a statement.
Overall, more than 44 million Americans collectively owe more than $1.56 trillion in student loans, making student loan debt the second highest consumer debt category in the United States. So, in order to combat this mounting economic dilemma, government systems, colleges, and universities have developed ways to make higher education more affordable.
UT Austin is the latest university to introduce such a program, joining many others who have made higher education more accessible.
Texas A&M — just two hours down the road from Austin — has been offering free tuition to students from families making less than $60,000 a year since 2008. And in 2018, its board raised $30 million to offer grants to families making between $40,000 and $100,000 a year.
Rice University covers the total cost of college, including tuition and room and board, for students coming from families that make less than $65,000 a year. For students from families making between $65,000 and $125,000 each year, Rice will provide full-tuition scholarships. And for students coming from families with an annual income between $130,000 and $200,000, Rice provides grants that cover at least half of total tuition.
Farther north, the University of Michigan provides free tuition for up to four years for any in-state student coming from a family that makes less than $65,000 a year.
And in 2017, New York State implemented the Excelsior Scholarship program, which makes it possible for New Yorkers to attend college tuition-free at every SUNY (State University of New York) and CUNY (City University of New York) two-and four-year colleges in New York.
In total, more than 75 four-year colleges and universities now offer free or reduced tuition. And 44 states have already implemented free two-year college programs, primarily through an organization called the College Promise Campaign.
Many of these programs have already proven to be successful.
The University of Michigan, for example, saw a near-immediate increase in the amount of low-income and first-generation students on campus since it established its free-tuition program in 2017.
But despite an increase in support and some examples of success, free-tuition programs still have their critics. And without proper execution, these programs, which often rely on taxpayer money, may struggle to find funding or live up to their potential.
For example, Oregon Promise, which was established in 2015 to cover tuition and other college costs for students attending community colleges, has had a hard time keeping the program afloat, according to Pew.
“That word — promise — is what makes the program really galvanizing,” Ben Cannon, executive director of the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission, told Pew.
“States should be very careful about making promises they may not be able to keep,” he said. “When the program has to compete every year or every other year with other worthy needs in the state budget, legislators can find other priorities more compelling.”
Additionally, some argue that many free-tuition programs are too restrictive in their eligibility requirements, and therefore won’t accomplish the goal of attracting a large group of low-income or first-generation students.
A study conducted by The Century Foundation found that, in some states, as few as 5 percent of students qualify for their College Promise program.
West Virginia’s College Promise program, for example, goes as far as to require prospective students to pass a drug test to qualify for financial aid.
Moreover, some argue that many College Promise and other free-tuition programs don’t do enough to address the financial needs of low-income college students. They suggest that to truly be helpful, programs should cover not only tuition, but the full cost of college, including room and board, books and additional fees.
And some 2020 Democratic candidates agree.
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Jackson Schroeder is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in Journalism from the E.W. Scripps School. He is originally from Savannah, Georgia. Jackson has covered a wide range of topics, including sustainability, technology, sports, culture, travel, and music. He plays bass and guitar, and enjoys playing and listening to live music in his free time.