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Low-income students need bold solutions to get to — and through — college

Students need more than just the promise of free tuition.

Globe staff illustration/Julia Garan/Adobe

In most of America, as globalization, technological change, and weakening labor power reduce returns to low-skilled work, future economic growth depends on increasing postsecondary opportunities for low-income students. Yet they face a powerful trifecta of rising college tuition, stagnant family income, and federal grant aid that has not kept pace.

This year, a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic has exposed and perpetuated income-based inequalities in access to higher education. Commendably, the Biden administration recognizes this as a national crisis. While the White House’s American Families Plan includes tuition-free community college, like existing state and local Promise programs, my research indicates it doesn’t go far enough.


­­­My investigation of low-income students suggests limitations of the Promise model for increasing economic mobility. While for some students, tuition-free community college forms an important component of the access and affordability puzzle, it does not offer a cure-all. Too often, college counselors at schools with high-poverty rates among students warehouse those students in Promise programs irrespective of students’ goals, decreasing access to a bachelor’s degree increasingly essential for a true shot at sustained higher earnings.

Promise programs function best when they encourage two-year enrollment among students who would not otherwise enroll in college. Community colleges offer commendable programs, but they’re not a cure-all, or the best choice, for every low-income student. While a free option for the first two years can create an onramp into higher education, the free-college message’s simplicity draws students away from equally free, more selective options.

One Memphis student would have received generous financial support to her first-choice college, Vanderbilt University. Despite her father’s disability and her home’s foreclosure, she graduated fifth in her high school class but never applied, assuming she could not afford tuition. Instead, she felt pushed into free community college. By her second year, her motivation to transfer to a four-year college and become an adolescent therapist had faded.


Students attending colleges beneath their abilities become less likely to graduate. Differences in supports provide one reason: Community colleges receive about half the revenues of public four-year colleges.

Roughly 60 percent of low-income students pay nothing at four-year public colleges, but school college counselors’ biases influence low-income students to enroll in community college over more selective institutions, especially when students hail from racial and ethnic minorities.

The message a low-income high school honors student in Nashville heard from her college counselor was, “Take the free money.” Unlike many of her peers, she didn’t listen, and financial aid and scholarships brought her cost of attending a local university down to $1,000 a semester. So long as she doesn’t drop out, those payments will be a worthwhile investment. Her path to a bachelor’s degree will bypass the transfer process, and the credit and time loss it all too frequently entails.

Narrowing income-based gaps in college completion by encouraging students into community college presents other confusing choices for families. Already, low-income students attend community college for free; the maximum federal Pell grant generally exceeds tuition. Because most existing Promise programs apply students’ federal financial aid first, before drawing down Promise funds, the same federal funds pay low-income students’ tuition inside or outside the Promise programs — something many college counselors, students, and their family members do not fully understand.


Clearly students need more than just the promise of free tuition. Students and their families need help understanding the costs and benefits of attending various postsecondary institutions and the financing options available. College counselors must teach students about returns on college competitiveness and encourage applications to safety, match, and reach schools. Currently, students cannot learn how much federal grant aid they will receive until after they decide to apply to college, and low-income students complete the FAFSA at low rates. Instead, the federal government could provide financial aid directly to institutions that pledged to drop tuition. “Free college” would truly become “free college,” which students could access in a more seamless way. Or the FAFSA and Promise program applications could be unified: If students submitted a single application, duplications could be reduced. Above all, high schools must gain resources to offer high-level courses that prepare students to meet college expectations and train students in the skills for using campus supports.

After a dispiriting time in working families’ lives, they need relief and need to build hope around the promise of economic opportunity through education. They need bolder and broader solutions than a federal promise focused solely on community college tuition.

Jodie Adams Kirshner, a bankruptcy law scholar, is a research professor at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management and the author of “Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises.”