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Report: States Support Free College in Poor Economies

July 12, 2018

A new report from the Century Foundation released today found that statewide free college programs received more political support during economic downturns, even when overall spending on higher education fell.

According to the report, funding per full-time-equivalent student grew between 12 and 142 percent in six states studied from 2007 to 2013, during the Great Recession, while overall state funding per FTE student fell between 18 and 38 percent in each state.

Jen Mishory, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and author of the report, examined free college programs in Delaware, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Oklahoma that vary in eligibility requirements. All of the programs offered free tuition and were not solely merit based. She found that these programs retained and increased funding even when the legislatures in those states cut funding for other financial aid programs. And all six programs grew at a time when their state financial aid budgets fell by an average of 6 percent per FTE nationally.

"Budgets were tight during the Great Recession, and even during those tight times, [these programs] sustained or increased funding over time," Mishory said. "What's interesting is none of these programs are truly universal."

Some of the programs maintained political support despite having an inequitable structure that sends disproportionate aid to wealthy families, while others also had political support but limited their dollars to low- and middle-income families.

Mishory said that future programs that offer clear messages and defined benefits and that target low and middle-income students and have sustainable funding streams can drive support.

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Ashley A. Smith

Ashley A. Smith, Reporter, covers community colleges, for-profit schools and non-traditional students for Inside Higher Ed. She joined the publication in 2015 after covering government and K-12 education for the Fort Myers News-Press in Florida for three years. Ashley also covered K-12 and higher education for three years at the Marshfield News-Herald in Wisconsin. She has interned with The Flint Journal, USA Today and the Detroit Free Press. Ashley grew up in Detroit and is a 2008 graduate of Michigan State University. 

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