Many low-income students who get enough aid to cover their tuition still struggle to pay for other basic college costs, including textbooks, transportation, room and board. These make up most of the cost of college for students at public four-year and community colleges. That’s why free tuition alone won’t solve the college affordability problem. The America’s College Promise Act introduced yesterday recognizes this by adding something with the potential to be far more transformative: a "maintenance of effort" provision aimed at making states hold up their end of the bargain when it comes to college funding.
States are critical players in keeping college affordable, but they have also been complicit in the rise of tuition and student loan debt by letting higher education get squeezed out of state budgets. The decline in per-student state funding for higher education has been well documented, as has the resulting impact on public college costs. Without federal intervention, higher education funding is likely to keep getting squeezed out, to the detriment of students, families and our economy. The legislation introduced yesterday includes such an intervention: it requires states to keep their funding levels up, in addition to eliminating tuition at community colleges, if they want to access new federal dollars. That’s why the state maintenance of effort requirement in the legislation is so important.
States can adopt proposals labeled “free college” that do little or nothing to make college more affordable for low- and moderate-income students. That’s what happened in Tennessee: it created a “last-dollar scholarship” that only helps students who don’t get enough from other grants to cover tuition. Oregon is poised to do something similar with $10 million, although some students will receive up to $1,000 for non-tuition expenses. Significantly, Oregon also increased need-based grant aid for low-income students by $27 million, which is critical because only one in five poor students who apply receives this state grant aid due to lack of funding.
We want states to invest in college affordability and debt-free college options, not in programs that may sound good but don’t make college more affordable for low- and moderate-income students. If we’re serious about increasing affordability and reducing debt, we need to help low-income students cover more of their costs. The America’s College Promise Act would free up community college students’ federal Pell Grants to cover non-tuition expenses by requiring states to waive tuition. This helps low-income students cover non-tuition expenses; using Pell Grants to declare tuition “free” for low-income students does not. After all, Pell Grant recipients, most of whom have family incomes under $40,000, are currently more than twice as likely to have to borrow and they graduate with more debt.
Making college affordable requires state investment in higher education. We commend the bill’s sponsors for tackling state disinvestment in public colleges—the primary driver of rising college costs and student debt in America.