Free public college

The traditional federal focus in higher education on supporting low-income students is being challenged on a number of fronts. In his 2015 State of the Union Address, President Obama first suggested supplemental federal funding for community colleges, regardless of the income levels of the students they serve. Since then, there have been a variety of federal proposals to provide institutional aid to all public colleges, and "free public college" has become a popular progressive campaign promise.

While this is not a priority for the Trump Administration, congressional Democrats remain interested.  Most prominently, House Education and the Workforce Committee Democrats included the America's College Promise legislation (H. R. 3709 full language) in their comprehensive  2018 Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization proposal; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced the College for All Act (S. 806 full language) in the Senate.  There are also several other bills addressing “free college” introduced in both chambers that propose a variety of provisions aimed at achieving “free.” 

Free public two-year or community college tuition is also gaining traction at the state level, where several states have enacted or proposed legislation. New York enacted free public four-year tuition in 2017, and a few other states are considering similar initiatives. However, “free four-year” has not had the momentum of “free two-year” in the states.

A key concern with these programs is that they do not target resources to low-income students.  Private, nonprofit colleges, public four-year, and public two-year colleges all have about the same percentage of Pell Grant students in their enrollments. All colleges serve a public mission, even if the independent sector does not get additional state support. The federal higher education investment must remain focused on low-income students, wherever they chose to attend


Historically, the federal role in higher education has focused on aiding students to attend the college of their choice. Federal aid is distributed based on a student’s need, not on the type of institution the student attends.

In recent years, various proposals have been made to shift the federal focus to address state budget cuts to public colleges by supporting those institutions through federal incentive funds.  Such proposals are less likely to target low-income students - on whom the policy conversation at the federal level must remain focused.

History and Background

When Congress developed the Education Amendments of 1972, the higher education debate focused on whether the federal investment should be targeted to students or to institutions. Ultimately, there was strong bipartisan agreement that students should receive assistance to attend the college of their choice. This policy decision has had remarkable success in democratizing American higher education, and in encouraging states and institutions to provide their own aid to make college affordable to those of moderate means. The Higher Education Act maintains this tradition.

The notion of targeted federal funds for public colleges reemerged as part of the economic stimulus bill in 2009. Public colleges – which had felt the pressure of state budget cuts and responded with increased tuition – received temporary federal funding to maintain state educational services.  This funding did not help low-income students.  As those dollars wind down, state colleges are looking for additional funds from the federal government.  Legislation (see full bill here) introduced in 2014 would have created a major new federal program for state colleges that would have produced little likely benefit for low-income students.

In the News

What You Can Do

In contacts with your elected officials:
  • Emphasize that the federal focus on aid to students should remain strong.  This proven approach has helped millions of hard-working, low-income students complete college and become independent.  
  • Highlight the investment your institution makes in students, beyond the federal aid they bring to your school.


NAICU Contacts