How free college works in a red state like Texas

How free college looks like depends on where you are.
How free college looks like depends on where you are.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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Free college has become a progressive hallmark for Democrats vying for the US White House in 2020. Practically all of the top contenders back some form of tuition-free higher education, one response to the country’s $1.5 trillion student debt problem.

But the concept is not exclusively liberal, or just a campaign promise. Dozens of states and cities around the country have already rolled out free college programs. They are usually dubbed College Promise, but they don’t all look the same. In New York, students have to commit to stay in the state after graduation for the same amount of time they got free tuition. In West Virginia, applicants have to pass a drug test to qualify. In Texas’ Dallas County, the bulk of the money comes from federal dollars.

Dallas County Promise is an example of how “free college” can be sold to a more middle-of-the-road audience, like the one whoever wins the Democratic primary will have to court. It is not run by the government, but is rather a coalition of community colleges, universities, school districts, private companies, and nonprofits. And it’s marketed as much as a solution to the area’s shortfall of college-educated workers, as a way to help poor students. 

That has proven to be a winning argument with voters in Dallas, which is largely Democratic, but in a fiscally conservative, small-government Texan way. In May, voters overwhelmingly approved a $1.1 billion bond issue proposed by the county’s community college district. The Promise program was one of its selling points.  

Whether the approach will be as effective at increasing the number of college graduates won’t be apparent for a while. The first cohort of students graduated high school in 2018.

What exactly is “free college”?

Generally, the term is used to describe programs that allow students to attend community or four-year colleges without paying tuition. (As opposed to “debt-free college,” which under the plans of some politicians, including senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, would also help cover other costs, such as living expenses.)

How the “free” part is funded varies dramatically—from anonymous donors to taxpayer dollars. State spending on Promise programs has ballooned in recent years, according to data compiled by the Century Foundation, a think tank that focuses on reducing inequality.


Dallas County Promise is built around Pell grants, the stipend of up to about $6,000 offered to low-income students by the federal government. Instead of using local tax dollars, the program encourages students to apply for available federal aid. Last year, that resulted in $3 million’s worth of extra Pell grants awarded to local students.

It’s called a “last-dollar” program, meaning it covers the difference between the financial aid students are able to secure and full tuition. Considering in-district tuition at local community colleges is a little more than $3,000, a Pell grant can go a long way.

Other costs, like mentoring to prevent drop-outs, comes from the colleges themselves and private donors. JPMorgan Chase, for example, gave the initiative $3 million. “People will invest in strategies that produce outcomes,” said Eric Ban, the program’s managing director. “That’s kind of a unifying concept regardless of political stance.”

The results for the first group that signed up for the program, some 9,000 students who graduated high school in 2018, are encouraging. Enrollment jumped by 35% at the county’s community college district, and retention by 12%.

A business case

While Democratic presidential candidates frame free college as a social justice issue, Dallas County Promise supporters are more likely to talk about it in economic terms.

The Dallas area has a booming economy, fueled in part by corporate relocations from other states. Many of the transplanted companies, however, are hiring out-of-towners due to a dearth of qualified local workers. “One of the core issues that our business leaders have is access to a high-quality workforce with people who have the skills they need,” said Anne Motsenbocker, who runs JPMorgan Chase’s middle-market business in the Dallas area.

Part of JPMorgan’s $3 million donation went towards researching the scale of Dallas’s skills gap and the losses it generates. It found that 65% of the jobs in the area require a post secondary degree. But only 28% of the area’s high school graduates go on to earn one. 

The 18,000 students who stop at a high school degree every year cost the county $18 billion in lost lifetime wages, according to the study.

An investment, not welfare

The Dallas program addresses some of the shortcomings of other “free college” iterations. Earlier experiments elsewhere have shown that just paying for college is not enough to ensure students earn a college degree. Aside from helping students get enough funding to cover tuition costs, Dallas County Promise has set up a system to track and guide their progress, including sending them texts and emails about upcoming deadlines. Students also get help to find jobs.

But the program doesn’t address a major criticism of “free college” programs: that it costs a lot more than tuition to go to college. The full estimated cost of attending community college in Dallas, including rent, food, and transportation is close to $20,000. (Some Dallas Promise participants are eligible for another scholarship that covers textbooks.)

Some experts say efforts to get more students on Pell grants and getting private companies to pitch in are laudable. But they’re simply not enough to tackle the size of the problem. Communities and states need to think of other strategies, like reducing the cost of college, says Sandy Baum. Public spending to boost the number of college graduates would pay off.

“This is not a welfare program. It’s an investment,” she said.

One Texas institution recently decided to put more money in. The University of Texas at Austin said earlier this month it would cover tuition for students whose families make less than $65,000 a year, and give a discount to those whose families earn up to $125,000. The funds will come from the university’s oil-and-gas-rich endowment.

Correction:  An earlier version of this story put the US’s student debt at $1.5 billion instead of $1.5 trillion.