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Dive Brief: 

  • The U.S. has at least 425 free college programs, from statewide initiatives to individual institutions launching their own tuition-free offerings, according to the latest count from College Promise, a nonprofit advocating for free postsecondary education. That’s up from 53 programs the organization identified in 2015.
  • Still, students face nontuition expenses, which many free college programs don’t cover. Colleges should combine their existing financial support to make the largest impact, the nonprofit suggested. 
  • Institutions should also individually customize how they meet each student’s financial needs. To help colleges meet learners’ needs, College Promise identified 10 student groups, including student parents and students with disabilities, and the different types of support they need from their institutions to earn their degree. 

Dive Insight:

College Promise worked with ETS, a testing provider that makes the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE, to understand the different types of students who enroll in free college programs. The two organizations created design teams composed of subject matter experts and student representatives to understand the barriers different groups face. 

For instance, the report identifies traditional-aged students, which are between ages 18 and 24, as one critical population. While many of these students enroll in college right after completing high school, they may face several potential challenges, including mental health issues, housing and food insecurity and insufficient academic preparation. 

In contrast, adult students, another key population, may be financially independent and employed — potentially an asset to completing college. But the postsecondary college system isn’t well-equipped for this population, which must often balance work, higher education and family obligations. 

Different student groups will need varying types of support, the report said. While traditional students could benefit from peer mentoring and tutoring, adult students may be helped more by flexible class schedules and student services hours. 

“College Promise programs are a proven means of helping students access, persist in, and graduate from higher education. But because we know students aren’t a monolith, we created a way to set up these design teams to help us understand — and better address — the needs of those specific populations,” College Promise CEO Martha Kanter said in a statement.

Other groups identified in the report include undocumented students, student veterans and first-generation students. 

Colleges should be aware that students may belong to more than one of these groups, the report says. Moreover, resources set up for one population may benefit others, such as flexible class schedules supporting adult students who are employed and student parents who have to provide childcare. 

Institutions should also automatically enroll students in certain services, such as academic and personal advising, instead of expecting them to sign up. Students who don’t need these offerings can opt out, the report argues. 

Further, it advises colleges to rebrand certain services to lower the stigma surrounding them. Food pantries, for instance, could be renamed nutrition centers.