Free public college

The "Free Public College" movement has been growing since President Obama first suggested supplemental federal funding for community colleges in his 2015 State of the Union Address. Since then, there have been a variety of federal proposals introduced in Congress to provide institutional aid to all public colleges, state-level free public college programs have been proliferating, and "free public college" has become a popular progressive campaign promise.

The Biden-Harris campaign included “free public college” as one of its policy planks for Beyond High School, and is expected to submit proposals to reflect these ideas as part of the Biden Administration's budget. 

During the 116th Congress, the House Education and Labor Committee introduced the College Affordability Act, which includes “America’s College Promise,” a federal-state partnership for tuition waivers at public community colleges.  Additionally, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced the College for All Act, which would provide free public two- and four-year tuition for families making less than $125,000.  The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee did not release comprehensive Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization legislation during the 116th Congress. With Democrats in control of the House and Senate for the 117th Congress, action on an HEA reauthorization that includes some form of “free college” is expected.

NAICU supports the Partnership for Affordability and Student Success (PASS) Act, introduced by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), which expands the existing federal-state partnership to increase state need-based grant aid.

At the state level, free public two-year or community college tuition is also gaining traction as 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 provide free public college to some or all families.  Some of the proposals are focused on community colleges and some are focused on all public institutions.  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. 

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.  
  • Explain that targeting federal funds to a specific sector of higher education will not help students equitably and, in many cases, will favor wealthier students over those with greater need.
  • Explain that any "federal-state partnership" should assist students at public and private colleges in the state equitably.
  • Highlight the investment your institution makes in students, beyond the federal aid they bring to your school.
  • Work with your state independent college association to show how state need-based aid helps make college possible for Pell Grant students.


NAICU Contacts