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Free college keeps growing as Arkansas, Indiana, Montana and Rhode Island join in

  • More than 20 states have already enacted some form of free college tuition.
  • The growing number of programs can make college viable for those who might not otherwise go.
  • Critics say tuition waivers don't help the students who need it most.

Think "free" tuition sounds unrealistic? It's already a reality in more than 20 states.

Earlier this year, Arkansas, Indiana, Montana and Rhode Island introduced statewide free community-college programs. Other states, including Minnesota, Oregon and Tennessee, already have programs, and 13 more introduced legislation this year to start similar initiatives, according to Dustin Weeden, a senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Meanwhile, New York's Excelsior Scholarship is the first in the nation to cover four years of tuition without being tethered to academic performance.

The scholarship applies to all schools at City and State University of New York (CUNY and SUNY, respectively). New York says more than 940,000 middle-class families and individuals making up to $125,000 per year will qualify when the program completes its three-year phase-in in 2020.

"Today, college is what high school was — it should always be an option even if you can't afford it," Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a press release.

To be eligible for the Excelsior scholarship, students need to:
Be New York State residents.
Attend a SUNY or CUNY two- or four-year program.
Take 30 credits per calendar year (including January and summer sessions).
Plan to live and work in New York following graduation for at least as long as the time they participate in the scholarship program.

Tuition has historically risen about 3 percent to 5 percent a year, according to the College Board, continuously outpacing inflation and family income. At the same time, more occupations necessitate some level of post-secondary education, making it extremely difficult for those who struggle with the costs.

The growing number of free tuition programs can be a lifeline.

In the state-based programs already in place, students receive a scholarship for the amount of tuition that is not covered by existing state or federal aid. Most are "last-dollar" scholarships, meaning the program pays for whatever tuition and fees are left after financial aid and other grants are applied.

But critics say lower-income students, through a combination of existing grants and scholarships, already pay little in tuition to state schools, if anything at all. In fact, tying the scholarship to four-year programs could increase costs for low-income students, who would otherwise complete a two-year program and enter the workforce more quickly.

"It's not going to do anything to help the group that really does need help the most," said Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, referring to "the students whose family incomes are less than $60,000 a year."

"Many low-income students are effectively paying no tuition already between the Pell Grant and state grants," said Mark Kantrowitz, Cappex.com's publisher and VP of strategy. "So, the incremental benefit to low-income students is small."

"It's not going to do anything to help the group that really does need help the most." -Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute

In addition, the money does not cover books, room or board, costs that lower-income students struggle with, and there could also be contingencies for those who participate.

In New York, for example, students are required to live and work in state after graduation. "It's important to read the fine print," said Eric Greenberg, president of Greenberg Educational Group, a New York-based consulting firm.

Overall, though, the pros far outweighs the cons, Weeden said.

"Based on the early evidence, there has been an enrollment boost," he said, "that's where the benefit is — bringing in students who would not have attended without the free college program."

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