Promise Goes Grassroots

National "free tuition" group changes its name and pitch with plan to support state and city tuition scholarships while continuing to push on the federal level.

November 20, 2014
Campaign's Morley Winograd on Capitol Hill this week

A group that wants the federal government to pay for in-state tuition for the nation's lower- and middle-income students has a new pitch, and a new name.

Redeeming America’s Promise, which was unveiled in June, has become the Campaign for Free College Tuition. The bipartisan nonprofit still wants the feds to fund scholarships to make tuition free at public colleges (see box for details). But its leaders said they aren’t waiting around for “Washington comity,” and will begin to throw their weight behind emerging tuition-scholarship programs in Tennessee and other states and cities.

“College tuition should be, can be free, and is already free thanks to leadership in education-focused communities across America,” Morley Winograd, the campaign’s president, said in a written statement.

Winograd, a former top adviser to Al Gore, in particular singled out the Tennessee Promise. The state this year created a $300 million scholarship from lottery funds and direct state support to pay for two years of tuition at its community and technical colleges. The money will cover any tuition or fees that federal and state grant aid does not, but it does not pay for living expenses.

All new high school graduates in the state will be eligible for the scholarship, beginning next year. They must maintain a 2.0 grade-point average and do eight hours of community service.

The new campaign wants to tap into broad public interest in the Tennessee program, which Governor Bill Haslam, a Republican, has made a signature issue. Fully 90 percent of this year’s high school graduates in Tennessee -- more than 56,000 students -- signed up this fall. The state also recruited more than 9,000 mentors to work with scholarship recipients.

Tennessee is the only state with such a program on the books. But about 45 cities, beginning with Kalamazoo, Mich., in 2005, have funded similar scholarships. New Haven, Conn., which is one of them, is hosting a meeting of participants from various cities today. The informal group is called PromiseNet 2014.

If “free tuition” is having a moment, Winograd’s group wants to help. Earlier this month representatives from the campaign met with Haslam’s staff. Winograd said they plan to take what they learned in Tennessee to “work with other governors and state officials to create similar plans.”

Tapping Tax Credits

The tuition scholarships have plenty of critics. Some say the money would be better spent in targeted ways, arguing that it should be distributed to the neediest students rather than people who can afford tuition. Another complaint is that eligibility requirements will freeze out many of the students who need the most help.

Redeeming America’s Promise has also come under fire. For example, Matt Reed, a blogger for Inside Higher Ed, called the federal plan a "travesty" and “discriminatory austerity.”

Specifically, Reed took issue with the group’s requirement that community colleges be required to charge no more than $2,500 in annual tuition to participate in the proposed federal program. Public four-year colleges would face a tuition cap of $8,500, which is less than many now charge.

“That would mean that colleges with more high-income and academically prepared students would get over three-and-a-half times the per-student funding that would go to the colleges that serve more low-income and academically underprepared students,” he wrote in July.

The newly named Campaign for Free College Tuition isn’t backing down, however. The federal plan remains the cornerstone of its work.

The Campaign for Free College Tuition’s Federal Plan

Eligibility: National Promise Scholarships would be available to students whose family incomes were no more than $180,000. Any students who are accepted by an accredited institution would be entitled to the community-college scholarship as long as they remain full-time and in good standing as defined by the Pell Grant Program. Students who earn a 2.5 G.P.A. after first two years of community college would be eligible to receive bachelor's degree scholarship for remaining years of their education. Students would need a high-school G.P.A. of at least 2.75 to qualify for the four-year scholarship.

Scholarship amounts: The community-college scholarship would be worth $2,500 a year. The four-year scholarship would be worth $8,500 per year. Institutions would be required to accept the scholarship money as the full amount for tuition, minus other federal and state grants. The scholarships’ value would be adjusted each year based on the Consumer Price Index and increases in college costs.

Living expenses: Income-based repayment would become the default option for financing student-living expenses, such as room, board and books.

“CFCT remains committed to educating policymakers that the federal government already spends enough money to offer free tuition at every public college,” the group said in a written statement.

The feds pay $150 billion per year on grants, loans and tax credits, which roughly 13 million students receive. With roughly $50 billion Winograd’s group said it could pay for the national scholarships.

One key area to tap would be federal tax credits. If students’ tuition is covered by the proposed scholarship, their families would not need or be able to claim a tuition tax credit. The elimination of tax credits alone would save $25 billion a year, the campaign said.

As in Tennessee, the group said a federal scholarship could be used as a “last dollar” fund to cover the gaps in existing grant programs, particularly Pell. It would also eliminate the need for some grant spending, and reducing half of the amount that goes toward Pell would save $17 billion a year.

The campaign isn’t alone in trying to find what it sees as better ways to spend federal money than on tuition tax credits and deductions.

Many higher-education experts say tax credits are an unworthy federal expense amid tight times, particularly because they tend to benefit relatively wealthy families. The Left-leaning New America Foundation last year recommended the elimination of tuition tax credits for college as part of its proposals to reform federal financial aid. Politicians, however, tend to like the tax credits, which go to constituents in every district.

Winograd said his group is working hard to identify champions on both sides of the aisle. He was on Capitol Hill yesterday to pitch the scholarship plan to Democratic staff members before heading to Connecticut.

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Paul Fain

Paul Fain, Contributing Editor, came to Inside Higher Ed in September 2011, after a six-year stint covering leadership and finance for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Paul has also worked in higher ed P.R., with Widmeyer Communications, but couldn't stay away from reporting. A former staff writer for C-VILLE Weekly, a newspaper in Charlottesville, Va., Paul has written for The New York Times, Washington City Paper and Mother Jones. He's won a few journalism awards, including one for beat reporting from the Education Writers Association and the Dick Schaap Excellence in Sports Journalism Award. Paul got hooked on journalism while working too many hours at The Review, the student newspaper at the University of Delaware, where he earned a degree in political science in 1996. A native of Dayton, Ohio, and a long-suffering fan of the Cincinnati Bengals, Fain plays guitar in a band with more possible names than polished songs.

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