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Unpacking free college tuition

December 9, 2022
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It's common knowledge to most people that a college education is expensive. Like, really expensive. According to a 2021 Fidelity Investments survey, college affordability is a top consideration for about 40% of college students – and it's easy to see why. For the 2022-2023 school year, the average tuition and fees were $39,723 for private colleges and $22,953 for public colleges ($10,423 for in-state students).

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Thankfully, there are many people hard at work to improve college affordability and provide opportunities for student success for all students, not just wealthier students who can afford to pay the full cost. Financial aid is available in many forms, on the government level as well as in the private sector; many universities themselves offer financial aid to their students in the form of loans, partial tuition assistance, or even full-ride scholarships! Here on, you can apply for thousands of exclusive scholarships tailored to you.

Some institutions have gone beyond standard financial aid packages and committed themselves to eliminating tuition altogether. Of course, free college vastly increases the accessibility of higher education. This allows opportunities for students who may not have had the resources to otherwise attend college; for many members of marginalized groups, free college programs can be literally life-changing.

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You may be thinking that sounds too good to be true. Can you really get your degree for free? Are colleges actually planning to eliminate tuition? Moreover, the verbiage of many tuition assistance programs can be complicated and confusing; the higher education system and its associated lending programs are notoriously tricky. With so much money in the balance, prospective students need to know exactly what they're getting into.

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The opportunity to graduate from college debt free is a dream for many students and their families. If you're curious about if and how that dream can become a reality, read on as we unpack the truth about free college programs.

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Are College Tuition Guarantees the Answer?

It is a generally understood axiom in higher education that the sticker price or retail price of college is not what you will pay. For students and parents, this can seem a bit confusing, frustrating, and perplexing. With some recent hype about free college tuition options, we will dive into two such programs to help you make sense of the programs being offered. The two free college tuition programs we dive into are the University of Michigan's Go Blue Guarantee and the New York Free Tuition Program.

Free College Tuition Analysis

University of Michigan: Go Blue Program

The University of Michigan's Go Blue Guarantee is a program modeled after the HAIL Scholarship to attract high-achieving, low-income students to their college programs. Go Blue Guarantee is offering in-state students with a household income of less than $65,000 free tuition at the University of Michigan for four years beginning January 2018.

The power of FREE. Understanding that the HAIL Scholarship and the Go Blue Free Tuition Guarantee program were virtually the same programs yet something fascinating happened with college applications from lower-income students. Fully 2.5 fold more students applied to the UM program when the verbiage changed from scholarship to free tuition. Yet the financial aid packages were basically the same. Was intelligent marketing or hype behind the shift?

Let's unpack this a bit further by diving into some data about the University of Michigan.

  • The average annual tuition for in-state students in Michigan is $14,401.
  • On-campus expenses for UM are $13,956
  • The average grant aid and scholarship for all students is $11,109
  • The average grant aid and scholarship for students with a household income of less than $75,000 is $20,271

The data reveals the average grant aid and scholarship for students with a household income of less than $75,000 exceed in-state tuition. The University of Michigan provided over $6.3 billion of aid and scholarships for the school year ending August 2015 which represents an increase of nearly 6.5% over a twenty-four-month span. Conversely, tuition has remained relatively flat at the university leading one to believe tuition is less of a driver of the cost of higher education than previously understood.

The free tuition program we are looking at for low-income students may be in fact a shift from increasing tuition to reducing financial aid or in business terms retaining a steady gross income while reducing overall discounts

New York State Free College Tuition Program

Next, let's take a look at the New York free tuition program. The State of New York spends about $1 billion on college financial assistance every year. This year, the state of New York rolled out a free tuition program. The free tuition program at CUNY and SUNY schools is for students with a household gross adjusted income of less than $100,000 in 2017 bumping to $110,000 in 2018 with no age limit for applicants.

Students must be U.S. citizens, permanent residents, or refugees legally authorized to be in the United States to be qualified for the free tuition program. Also, students in NY must be enrolled full-time and take at least 30 credits a year to remain eligible. After graduation, students live in NY and work in NY for at least four years or be forced to pay back all monies from the program.

Unpacking the numbers:

  • The average tuition at a 4-year school in NY (CUNY and SUNY) is $6,470 and $4,350 at community colleges in NY.
  • Students still need to pay for room, board, fees, and books. SUNY school averages: $12,590 for room and board, around $1,000 for books, and $1,590 for fees totaling $14,180 for free education.
  • The average scholarship and grant aid for CUNY is $5,172 for federal grants and $3,920 for state/local grants
  • The total federal and state grant aid and scholarship aid average in 2015 of $9,092 exceeds the CUNY and SUNY average of $6,470. In other words, free tuition was offset by a reduction in scholarship and grant aid.
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Is Free College Tuition Really Free?

Free tuition programs may be beneficial to students and parents to get off the fence and enroll in college but read the fine print carefully. Free tuition may end up costing you a bit more than traditional scholarship and grant aid programs that still dominate the marketplace. As such, take the time to carefully analyze the programs that are best for you and determine which is the best value for your time and resources before committing to a college or degree program.

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