"Five years from now, we would expect that a majority of the states in the country would have free college tuition, and that would be a tipping point," said Morley Winograd, the president and CEO of the Campaign for Free College Tuition.
Last year, New York's Excelsior Scholarship became the first in the nation to cover four years of tuition without being tethered to academic performance.
The scholarship applies to all schools at the City University of New York and State University of New York (abbreviated 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.
During the recession, declining public funds caused tuition to skyrocket. At private four-year schools, average tuition and fees rose 26 percent in the last decade. Tuition plus fees at four-year public schools, which were harder hit, jumped 35 percent over the same time period.
The growing number of free tuition programs can be a lifeline.
"We haven't seen momentum around college affordability on the federal side, so it's welcome to see that happening on the state side," said Jennifer Mishory, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, specializing in issues related to workforce and higher education.
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, like Tennessee, are "last-dollar" scholarships, meaning the program pays for whatever tuition and fees are left after financial aid and other grants are applied.
Based on the early evidence, "we've seen access increasing," said Sara Goldrick Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University. "It's absolutely a good start."