The 2018 election cycle saw many gubernatorial candidates, both incumbent and challenger, making promises about statewide “Promise” programs, which offer free tuition to a set of students meeting certain criteria. While it’s easy to be cynical about the pledges candidates make on the campaign trail, research on the importance of campaign promises finds that they do in fact matter when candidates take office. And it seems as though state executives are taking the first steps on their college commitments: several new governors who discussed free college during their candidacies have included free college directives in their budget proposals this year.
Several new governors who discussed free college during their candidacies have included free college directives in their budget proposals this year.
Nineteen states now have a free or debt-free college program, a trend spurred on by the Tennessee free community college program, known as the Tennessee Promise, and President Obama’s elevation of the idea through his federal America’s College Promise proposal. The programs vary in design, and those variations can lead to significant differences in efficacy and access: many limit which students may participate by GPA or enrollment intensity, or provide only “last dollar” scholarships, meaning they cover the balance of tuition but do not provide new dollars to cover living costs for low-income students—costs that often constitute the greatest financial barrier at community colleges and for low-income students.
Five of the seven winning gubernatorial candidates who made campaign pledges on the issue have included those proposals in their budgets, with each pursuing different program designs. Which proposals are the most inclusive, and which the best designed for success?
Electoral Commitments, Budgetary Action
Last year, seven gubernatorial candidates who went on to win their elections made pledges to pursue some version of a free college plan if voted into office, with most focusing on providing free tuition at community colleges.
In California, the state already provides free community college through a program that waives tuition for low-income students and through a second program providing free community college to first-time, full-time students in their first year (regardless of income). Governor Gavin Newsom (D) promised to expand on that second program by covering tuition for first-time, full-time students for the second year, and his recent budget proposal follows up on that pledge. On the opposite coast, Governor Ned Lamont of Connecticut (D) proposed tuition-free community college for students who commit to living and working in Connecticut for a period of time after they graduate, and in Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz (D) pledged to make two years of college free for families earning under $125,000 a year, a proposal his team projected would cost $265 million. However, an analysis of the new budgets show that neither Walz or Lamont included funding for such a program this year.
Two moderate-leaning Republican governors also made commitments: Governor Larry Hogan proposed expanding the Maryland Community College Promise Scholarship (a last-dollar program focused on full-time students) to include students who transfer to Maryland’s four-year public institutions, a promise towards which the governor took initial steps through a $8 million request in his recent budget release; however, the program would actually cost approximately $175 million over five years. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker pledged $7 million to fund a debt-free community college tuition plan for the state’s neediest students, a proposal that the legislature enacted in the fall.
Two governors proposed a mix of “debt-free” and free college plans. These plans would cover tuition and, in some cases, other costs, but only for students low-income enough to need to take out student loans to pay those costs. Hawaii Governor David Ige (D) ran for reelection on a promise to expand the state’s existing debt-free community college program, and his recent budget proposal reflects that promise, allocating $19 million in funding to the expanded program. The Hawaii Promise program helps low-income students with financial need cover the costs of tuition, fees, textbooks, and living expenses so that they won’t be required to take out loans for those expenses.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) proposed a MI Opportunity Scholarship, a two-year, debt-free tuition plan focused on two- and four-year colleges. Her budget launched the first step in her plan, a $110 million investment in a last dollar “Reconnect” program, that would allow residents age twenty-five and older to enroll in community colleges, career certificate programs, and union apprenticeships for free. Her budget promised to follow up the year after on covering debt-free tuition at community colleges and four-year institutions, though previous statements imply that the four-year pledge may end up as a merit scholarship.
Certainly, other candidates talked about college affordability ideas on the campaign trail. The governors-elect in Wisconsin and New Mexico signaled openness toward a policy to allow individuals the chance to refinance their students loans. And many candidates made broad promises about improving college affordability or expanding access to career and technical education. But these pledges were vague. Research suggests that specific campaign promises are what matter the most, and the evidence from this year’s budget proposals supports that: tangible commitments made to pursue a free or debt-free college plan have in fact seemed to motivate follow-up on the part of new governors, however uncertain their fates may be as those budgets make their way through state legislatures.
Tangible commitments made to pursue a free or debt-free college plan have in fact seemed to motivate follow-up on the part of new governors, however uncertain their fates may be as those budgets make their way through state legislatures.
But those proposals are also designed in a number of different ways. Given the political energy around the issue, it is critical that future pledges and new programs are well-designed to help more students afford college.