‘Free college’ isn’t free: Even when tuition is covered, many programs still leave students scrambling, experts say



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With CUNY recently announcing that its journalism school would be tuition free by 2026 and Michigan Reconnect, a community college program, saying it may expand, the spotlight is back on making higher education affordable. But many students still find themselves left in the dark.

Application processes remain onerous. Too few experts are available to assist applicants. It’s not clear what potential students will get when it comes to return on investment—both their money and their time. Ultimately, experts told Fortune, many students still aren’t getting what they need.

“Even with this patchwork of financial aid that’s out there from federal, state, and local institutions themselves, there’s just a lot of confusion about what the bottom-line cost of college is going to be for for a student,” said Celeste Carruthers, a professor of labor economics at the University of Tennessee.

While “tuition-free” is sort of a catch-all term, it means different things to different institutions. At some, there’s a GPA requirement. At others, students may need to be state residents or pursuing their first degree. The more requirements there are, Carruthers explained, the harder it is for students to get the information required to make optimal decisions.

“Students really respond to clarity and certainty in the price of college,” she added.

They also really respond to “tuition free.” It’s a bit of a catch-22. Research from the University of Michigan shows that when students received mailers using that language they were more than twice as likely to apply than if they instead got information about various scholarship options.

Closing the gap

In addition to streamlining application processes, some institutions are helping students by making available so-called “last-dollar scholarships,” which commit to covering someone’s remaining costs after they’ve exhausted other options, including applying for Pell Grants. Michigan Reconnect and Tennessee Promise, another community college-focused program, offer last-dollar scholarships for students who reside in those states.

Education consultant Eric Greenberg, founder and president of Greenberg Educational Group, said it’s very important potential students understand that “tuition-free” doesn’t equate to “full-ride.” Each needs to figure out how much they’ll actually be on the hook for—and whether they’ll still need loans.

Even with many of the related costs of attending college trailing inflation, students now more than ever are focused on long-term ROIs, he added.

“I would say up until about 10 years or so ago, most people when they picked a college, they picked it based upon the umbrella name of the college. They didn’t look that carefully at programs within the school,” said Greenberg, who also helps students with applications.

And specialized schools such as CUNY’s graduate-level journalism program, even if tuition is covered and even if the educational offerings are top-notch, may become less attractive depending on job market headwinds.

“So 10, 20 years ago, journalism was very highly regarded in terms of getting a certain degree,” Greenberg said. “Today, unfortunately, there have been so many layoffs in the journalism industry, people are much more wary of investing X number of dollars when the return on investment might not be what it was 10, 20 years ago.”

Other considerations

Although the job market is part of the equation, Kathleen deLaski, a board chair at Education Design Lab, a nonprofit that provides consulting services, argued that the expansion of tuition-free options may also steer students away from applying to more elite institutions that come with the accompanying price tag. For some students, that elite diploma could be worth pursuing.

DeLaski also argued that the discourse around higher education needs to expand to include more people who aren’t chasing bachelor’s degrees. Many would benefit from cheaper associate degrees or credentials for specific trades. Clarifying that messaging, and making sure potential applicants to all institutions of higher learning understand it, and what the sum of their pursuits will actually cost them, is essential.

“We have two narratives right now that are heading for a train wreck,” deLaski said. “One is, ‘College isn’t worth it—it’s too expensive.’ And the other is, ‘75% of all jobs require a college degree’—those that are actually jobs of the future. And we can’t live as a society with those two narratives being held at the same time.”

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