Study examines how policy design impacts success of free college programs

Stephanie Koons
June 15, 2021

There is a widespread conviction in the United States that a college degree is an engine of social mobility but increasingly out of reach due to rising tuitions costs. According to researchers at Penn State and Brown University, the success of free college policies in expanding college access and reducing racial and economic disparities likely depends in part on the specific features of the policies and the hurdles, or lack thereof, that they present to applicants. 

“I’m interested in the barriers that students face going to and going through college and how public policy shapes college access and student success,” said Kelly Rosinger, assistant professor of education (education and public policy) in the Department of Education Policy Studies and research associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education in the Penn State College of Education.

“Free college” programs have emerged as a popular policy response to make college more affordable and level the playing field in college access at local, state and federal levels. There are currently hundreds of free college programs across the country, including at least 20 state-sponsored programs. In April, before a joint session of Congress, President Joe Biden pitched his American Families Plan, which calls for $109 billion to make two years of community college free for all students in addition to a roughly $85 billion investment in Pell Grants to decrease the reliance on student loans.

States have also been experimenting with free college programs, as evidenced by the recent launch of  Michigan Reconnect — a $30 million program that will provide scholarships to millions of eligible Michigan adults without college degrees, enabling them to earn a tuition-free associate degree or skills certificate at their in-district community college.

While free college policies have the potential to increase enrollment by reducing college costs, Rosinger said, substantial variation in program design likely shapes how effective the programs are at expanding college access and reducing racial and economic disparities. In a new paper, “Leveraging insights from behavioral science and administrative burden in free college program design: A typology,” Rosinger and colleagues offer a framework for examining how policy design for statewide free college programs reduces (or increases) the burden individuals will likely face in accessing and maintaining free college benefits. The paper was published in the Journal of Behavioral Public Administration.

“The ways in which these programs are designed, the process through which students access and maintain aid, are critically important for who goes to college, where they go to college and how they pay for it,” Rosinger said.

Rosinger’s co-authors on the paper are Katharine Meyer, a postdoctoral research associate at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University and a research affiliate with the Nudge4Solutions Lab at the University of Virginia; and Jialing Wang, a research technologist in the Department of Applied Linguistics in Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts and a doctoral student in the Higher Education program.

“What we were interested in was the process through which students get aid for free college,” Rosinger said. “Our study is really pointing to some examples of states where policy makers might look when they’re interested in designing programs that are more effective.”

In their study, the researchers created a typology by identifying free college programs that are more (and less) likely to create barriers for applicants. They categorized the programs based on the extent to which their design is likely to impose administrative burden (the costs incurred from interacting with bureaucratic processes) and, conversely, the extent to which they offer behavioral supports to help students navigate the aid process.

Administrative burdens include learning costs, such as finding out whether one is eligible for a program; compliance costs, such as burdensome paperwork and documentation; and psychological costs, such as the stress and stigma that people feel when interacting with government programs.

The researchers’ efforts are directed toward providing context for researchers as they examine the effectiveness and equity outcomes of the free college programs, particularly across different student populations. For example, programs with high administrative burden and few behavioral supports may enroll fewer students than programs that impose fewer costs and provide assistance to intended recipients. Those dynamics, the researchers contend, “will likely widen racial and economic disparities as students have inequitable access to information and assistance navigating bureaucratic processes.”

“What we wanted to do in this paper was to document this variation and to try to understand how much variation exists across states in the extent to which students are likely to face onerous processes,” said Rosinger.

One of the major factors contributing to administrative burden in financial aid in general, Rosinger said, is the requirement to complete a Federal Application for Free Student Aid (FAFSA) — a process that has a reputation for being tedious and time-consuming. Once students are in college, she added, many of them lose financial aid because they don’t resubmit the FAFSA.

In addition to the FAFSA requirement, many states have their own regulations for free college eligibility such as a state aid program application, volunteer requirements, mentorship programs, documentation for residency and/or citizenship and drug tests.

“If we know FAFSA is a barrier, we know these additional requirements are likely to be a barrier to getting state aid, too,” Rosinger said.

An unfortunate consequence of administrative burden, she added, is that it often falls more heavily on racially minoritized, low-income and first-generation students — all of whom often have less support navigating complex bureaucratic processes.

“It’s particularly concerning that this is something that could widen economic and racial disparities in college-going patterns,” Rosinger said.

Just as states differ in the levels of administrative burden they present to students applying for free college programs, Rosinger and colleagues reported that they found variability in the behavioral supports they offer to help students navigate the bureaucratic process. For example, the Washington College Grant website lists the estimated award by income and includes a link to subscribe to texts about upcoming deadlines and to connect with a state financial aid administrator. In addition, some states allow automatic enrollment for free college programs — once a student submits a FAFSA, if they meet eligibility requirements, they are enrolled with few additional requirements.

“We leveraged this understanding that states can enact different structures to help students overcome complexity in the financial aid process and states vary in the extent to which they do that as well,” said Rosinger.

The insight on the free college program design that the researchers provide, they wrote in their paper, is “timely as states contemplate whether and how to enact (or revise) free college programs.” In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn, Rosinger said states may face increasingly tight budgets in the coming years and will be looking for ways to reduce spending.

“It’s a concern that (state governments) may not increase financial aid budgets enough to respond to student needs, especially during a pandemic that’s disproportionately affecting low-income and Black Americans,” she said. “There are certainly concerns that without expanded budgets for these programs, there won’t be enough funds to meet the needs of students.”

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Last Updated June 29, 2021