All too often, needy students rule out college because they believe the price tag is unaffordable. A 2020 study by three economists found that a 10 percent increase in sticker prices at a public flagship like Rutgers reduces their likelihood of applying, even though many could enroll for free – or nearly free – with the state and federal aid that exists.
We’re deterring them with the high cost of tuition, so we lose the opportunity to have these people advance in their lives and careers. “To get students to apply in the first place,” the researchers from Wellesley College, UPenn and the College Board concluded, “they need the ability to better forecast what their college costs will be at an early stage.”
Now, Gov. Phil Murphy has a $50 million proposal aimed at helping thousands more students get free tuition, a sweeping guarantee to plug all gaps. His “Garden State Guarantee” would extend his tuition-free college promise, in place already for low-income students at community colleges, to two years at a four-year public university like Rutgers.
The proposal would make it clear that low-income kids can indeed get four years free tuition by plugging gaps and broadcasting this message. Families need to make less than $65,000 annually to qualify. And it’s a “last dollar program;” meaning the students would have to apply for help from existing programs first. This would be a safety net, one that would fill any gaps that remain.
The $50 million would cover qualifying kids who enroll in the fall of 2022, for two years of tuition. They could go to Rutgers for their last two years of college for free, if they’ve already done the first two at community college. Or they could head straight to a four-year college for two years, then pay for the rest themselves using scholarships or loans.
Communicating the message that their tuition will be free could make a real difference, according to Sandy Baum, an expert on higher education at the Urban Institute. A similar “last dollar” tuition program worked in Tennessee, she says – more students “absolutely” enrolled. “It woke them up to the reality that, oh, they could afford to go.”So, this idea has promise. Free access to K-12 education is not enough anymore. Murphy’s proposal would take a robust step towards giving everyone access to K-16 education. Given that a high school diploma is no longer enough for most jobs, this is where we’ll have to go eventually, if we want an educated workforce.
Some big questions remain, like how the state will pay for this going forward, given that it’s been financially starving higher education. The $50 million is one-shot money, part of the roughly $4 billion that we borrowed for covid relief, and the idea of using it to start new programs that will cost us every year does raise concern.
But this is too good a cause to dismiss outright. It affects us all. Students who get a college degree are much more likely to be able to support themselves well throughout their lives; they contribute more to the labor force, pay more taxes and are less likely to rely on income support programs or unemployment. There are countless benefits to having a more educated population.
It’s important to note that tuition-free and “free” are not the same thing, of course: Students still have to borrow or come up with money for things like living expenses, transportation and books. But we need more programs like this to ease the path to college for first-generation and low-income students, says Rutgers-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor. “It’s really fundamental, because we know that without substantial intergenerational wealth, without a sense of stability, without funding, students simply won’t come.”Given the national conversation around trying to eliminate tuition costs for needy students, Murphy’s backers say they’re hoping to get ahead of the curve of an idea whose time has come. The challenge, as always, will be convincing the skeptics at home.