Will ‘Free College’ Survive COVID-19? How The Pandemic Could Devastate College Promise Programs — And Why The November Election Might Be Their Only Hope

Will ‘Free College’ Survive COVID-19? How the Pandemic Could Devastate College Promise Programs — and Why the November Election Might Be Their Only Hope

Timari Ray recently completed her first year at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee. She acknowledges that without the Tennessee Promise, which made community college free for most students in the state in 2014, higher education would have been unaffordable for her. Thanks to the Promise, she plans to transfer to the University of Tennessee after her second year and eventually establish her own public relations firm.

Although Ray would have considered attending college even without the Promise, she believes her chances would have been slim due to limited scholarship opportunities, especially at the expensive and competitive University of Tennessee. She would have likely resorted to working or pursuing a trade instead.

Currently, Ray is enrolled in two online summer classes, made possible by TNAchieves, the nonprofit organization that administers the Tennessee Promise. The organization has allowed students to utilize their scholarship money for summer courses this year due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Tennessee Promise is just one of over 400 programs across the United States that aim to make college more affordable or entirely free. Each program is tailored to serve different students and meet specific local goals. Funding for these programs varies, with some relying on state and federal grants, philanthropy, or state and local budgets.

Unfortunately, many of these programs are at risk following the coronavirus pandemic. The economic downturn has led to mounting unemployment and business closures, starving state and local budgets of tax revenue. Without support from the federal government, these programs may suffer severe budget cuts. The outcome of the November election will likely determine the extent of federal help these programs receive.

The concept of "free college" is particularly popular among Democrats. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has recently expanded his college affordability proposal to attract progressive voters. His plan promises free community college and tuition waivers at four-year public colleges and universities for families earning up to $125,000 annually. Additionally, Biden plans to enhance access to Pell Grants for low-income students and double their value.

Douglas Harris, an economist from Tulane University and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes that if Democrats secure a unified federal government, the prospect of federally funded free college increases significantly. He notes that Biden’s recent commitment to free college demonstrates its priority within the party. However, even if Biden wins but Congress remains divided, there is bipartisan support for improving access to higher education, which may lead to a watered-down version of the proposal.

The fate of college promise programs is uncertain without federal assistance. These initiatives may be forced to continue operating with reduced funding or seek alternative sources of funding. Colleges may be required to accept less money for eligible students and cover the additional costs themselves. If colleges receive funds from the CARES Act, they can use the money to bridge the gap. However, if they must sustain the programs without the additional cash, the quality of education may suffer.

Furthermore, colleges are concerned about declining enrollment as students consider taking a gap year or are hesitant to pay high tuition fees for online courses at home. The California State University system, the largest four-year college system in the country, announced in May that most of its fall classes will be conducted online. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that as of early June, 67 percent of the 870 colleges surveyed were planning for in-person classes, while 7 percent were preparing for online classes. The remaining colleges proposed hybrid models, were undecided, or considering various options.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, college promise programs face significant challenges. However, with the support of the federal government and creative solutions, it is possible for these programs to adapt and continue providing affordable education to students.

During the Democratic presidential primary, the issue of free college education created a divide between the more progressive candidates and the moderates, including Biden. However, as the race progressed, the former vice president shifted towards the left. This move was an attempt to appeal to Biden’s former rivals in the race, such as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who advocated for free tuition for all students, regardless of income, at both two- and four-year public institutions.

Biden’s current plan aligns with that of former candidate Pete Buttigieg, who proposed free tuition for 80 percent of students – those from households earning less than $100,000 a year. Additionally, Buttigieg suggested subsidizing tuition for the next 10 percent of students based on their income, ranging from $100,000 to $150,000. On the other hand, Mike Bloomberg and Amy Klobuchar promised to make tuition free only at public two-year colleges.

Most of these plans were inspired by existing promise programs that have already been implemented by states and communities to support local students.

The most generous programs currently in place cover the entire tuition cost for four-year colleges and universities. One well-known example is the Kalamazoo Promise, which was established in 2005 through the contributions of anonymous donors. This program covers the full cost of tuition for students who attended Kalamazoo Public Schools from kindergarten to high school graduation. With this scholarship, students can choose to attend any of the 56 public and private colleges and universities in Michigan. Even students who only spent part of their school years in Kalamazoo can benefit from partial scholarships proportional to their time in the district.

One advantage of relying on philanthropy for the Kalamazoo Promise is that it is not subject to the whims or budget cuts of legislators. Von Washington, one of the program’s executive directors, stated that he has received "reasonable assurance" from the donors that the scholarships are not at risk at this time. However, Washington expressed concerns that the current pandemic might cause students to reconsider their plans for higher education, although it is too early to determine the full impact.

The Kalamazoo program stands out for its generosity as a "first-dollar scholarship," meaning it covers students’ tuition fees regardless of their eligibility for financial aid like Pell Grants. Consequently, students can utilize other forms of financial assistance for expenses such as books and housing.

In contrast, many other promise programs follow a "last-dollar" scholarship model, which means they cover the remaining tuition costs after other financial aid is utilized. Experts argue that last-dollar scholarships may disproportionately benefit more privileged students who are ineligible for need-based aid, as these students receive additional funding from the program.

As a leading example of free college initiatives, the Kalamazoo Promise has been in place long enough for some data to reveal student outcomes. The program, which provides students with ten years to utilize the scholarship, has successfully increased the number of students entering and graduating from college. However, according to research released in 2017, less than half of the program participants have earned bachelor’s degrees. Furthermore, there is a racial disparity in degree completion, with approximately 50 percent of white students graduating compared to only 15 percent of African-American and Latino students, as reported by Michigan Public Radio. So far, around 7,000 students have taken advantage of this scholarship, according to program administrators interviewed by Michigan Public Radio last year.

Certain college affordability programs, such as the Excelsior scholarship in New York state, restrict eligibility based on income – an approach similar to Biden’s plan. The Excelsior scholarship provides free tuition for residents from households earning up to $125,000 per year at both two- and four-year public schools.

Taking it a step further than free tuition, Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, introduced a bill in Congress last year that proposed making all college costs debt-free. This bill requires both federal and state funds to cover not only tuition but also living expenses for students. Representative Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, introduced the same bill in the House. Senator Warren, along with Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand – all of whom dropped out of the 2020 Democratic presidential race – are co-sponsors of the Schatz bill.

Enhancing Access to Community College Education

Certain programs, known as promise programs, aim to provide "free community college" by waiving tuition fees at two-year colleges. This allows students to earn an associate’s degree and then choose to either transfer to a four-year institution or enter the workforce. Former President Barack Obama advocated for free community college during his presidency and estimated that it would cost around $13 billion per year in the long run. In 2015, Obama established an advisory board led by Jill Biden, who is a community college professor and the wife of current President Joe Biden, to work on this matter.

One example of a promise program is the Tennessee Promise, which is known as a last-dollar program. It offers two years of tuition-free community college or technical school for adults residing in the state. In addition to financial aid, the program includes a mentoring component that pairs students with volunteers who provide support and guidance on transitioning to college life. The program also employs full-time coaches who assist Promise recipients throughout their college journey.

Ray, a student at Pellissippi State Community College and a recipient of the Tennessee Promise, emphasizes the importance of the coaching component in her success thus far. Her coach, Sumner Deason, meets with her on a monthly basis and frequently sends emails reminding her of essential deadlines for financial aid. Ray commends Deason, who herself was the first in her family to attend college, for being a valuable mentor who genuinely cares about her well-being and encourages her when faced with academic and personal challenges.

Ray explains, "Especially if you’re a first-generation college student, you lack prior knowledge about what to expect or have family members who can guide you through the process. Having a mentor or coach who can offer advice, celebrate your achievements, and motivate you to persist is incredibly significant."

The Tennessee Promise is available to all students who graduate from high school or earn a GED in the state before the age of 19. However, some programs may have stricter academic criteria.

During a Democratic debate in January, Senator Amy Klobuchar highlighted the importance of not solely focusing on college degrees. She argued that policymakers should consider future job openings and invest in areas where there will be a demand for workers. Research indicates that numerous job opportunities in the United States require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree.

Klobuchar stated, "We shouldn’t just be looking at producing more MBAs. We’re going to face a shortage of tradespeople, such as plumbers. So, when we allocate funds, we should prioritize K-12 education and provide free one- and two-year degree programs, similar to what my father and sister pursued." She also expressed her intention to expand Pell Grants so that financial aid is directed towards deserving students rather than being disproportionately awarded to wealthy individuals.

Klobuchar, alongside other former Democratic candidates, expressed support for expanding investment in apprenticeship programs. These programs enable individuals to gain work experience and earn income as they acquire valuable skills in their chosen trade or profession.

Under the leadership of Mayor Randall Woodfin, Birmingham, Alabama is introducing a promise program this year that encompasses both higher education and apprenticeship opportunities. Through a public-private partnership, the Promise program offers free public two- or four-year college attendance to students who have completed their education in Birmingham City Schools from first to twelfth grade. Additionally, students who transfer into the district and graduate are eligible for partial scholarships.

It’s worth noting that there are certain limitations imposed by promise programs. For example, if students choose to attend community college, they may not be granted free tuition if they decide to pursue a four-year degree at a different institution. However, the University of Alabama at Birmingham has recently partnered with the Promise program to provide tuition support for all eligible graduates of Birmingham City Schools.

An interesting aspect of Birmingham’s approach is the inclusion of an apprenticeship component, allowing students to gain work experience while earning an income. Traditionally, approximately 50 percent of Birmingham high school graduates continue their education in higher institutions.

In recent weeks, the program has gained new sponsors, and Birmingham Promise is planning to launch an official fundraising campaign in the late summer or early fall, according to officials. They understand that they will face the economic consequences of the current health crisis but believe that the most severe and immediate financial consequences will have subsided by then, as stated by a representative from Birmingham Promise Inc.

Mayor Randall Woodfin, in explaining his decision to incorporate an apprenticeship component into the initiative, expressed his concern for the young people he encounters. He acknowledges their career interests, passions, and dreams but realizes that they lack the exposure, opportunities, and experiences to turn those dreams into tangible opportunities.

Local promise programs have an advantage in that they can address the specific needs of the communities they serve. Laura Perna, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who spearheaded the effort to create a database of promise programs, highlights that these programs can take into consideration factors such as local college-going norms, the academic readiness of students, and the presence of colleges and universities in the region. However, she acknowledges that different communities have varying resources, which raises concerns about college affordability and the sustainability of programs reliant on state and local funding.

Birmingham’s Woodfin explains that one reason he included apprenticeships in his initiative was due to feedback from the local business community. They expressed difficulties in finding workers in industries such as healthcare, manufacturing, technology, and energy.

Some states, like New York, have implemented measures to maximize the benefits of scholarship programs. For example, the Excelsior scholarship in New York requires students to reside and work in the state for the same duration as they received the money. Failure to do so converts the award into a zero-interest loan.

In an effort to revive a declining community, a retired health care company CEO from Neodesha, Kansas donated enough funds to create a college promise program that will last for at least 25 years. The program aims to attract young families and has already generated interest among potential home buyers.

While the free-community-college model has its advantages, such as providing middle skills training for open jobs, it also has drawbacks. Community colleges generally have lower graduation rates compared to four-year institutions, and the budget available to them is often smaller. An economic analysis by the Brookings Institution in 2019 revealed that while free community college increases the proportion of high school graduates completing a postsecondary degree, it comes at the expense of BA degrees. This is because some students who would not have pursued higher education opt for community college, while others who would have attended four-year schools switch to community college instead. These factors make community college programs appealing to Republicans, according to Tulane economist Harris.

The tradition of state control in higher education poses another challenge. According to researcher Matthew Chingos, the wide range of state college systems makes it difficult to establish a federal free college program, as each state has its own eligibility criteria and tuition fees.

The structure of a program plays a crucial role in public opinion. A study conducted in January revealed that people viewed free college programs with merit-based components, such as a minimum high school GPA, as more "fair" for eligibility. Additionally, respondents had a more positive perception of programs that were available to all students, regardless of financial need, compared to programs that targeted families with incomes below $50,000 per year.

A poll by the Progressive Policy Institute in February found that a majority of swing voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania (69 percent) preferred to allocate more funds to helping Americans without college education acquire better skills and job opportunities, rather than making college free for everyone.

Meanwhile, college promise programs are making a significant impact in communities across the country. For students like Ray, who attends Pellissippi State, the opportunity to attend community college for free has been life-changing. Not only does she aim to earn a bachelor’s degree and start her own PR business, but she also wants to inspire her younger siblings to pursue higher education.

Ray emphasizes the significance of the support she receives from her family and community, and how it motivates her to continue despite challenges. The investment in her education by the community has solidified her decision to stay in Knoxville for the foreseeable future. Without access to free education, Ray believes she would not have found the same opportunities elsewhere, making Knoxville the best place for her to thrive.

By signing up for newsletter, you can receive stories like these directly in your inbox.


  • makhiknapp

    Makhi is a 34 yo educational blogger who is passionate about writing and exploring new content ideas. She has a degree in English from the University of Utah and is currently working as a teacher in a public school in Utah. Makhi has been published in numerous online journals and has been featured on national television networks.



Makhi is a 34 yo educational blogger who is passionate about writing and exploring new content ideas. She has a degree in English from the University of Utah and is currently working as a teacher in a public school in Utah. Makhi has been published in numerous online journals and has been featured on national television networks.