Debt-Free College and Free College: What’s the Difference?

Postsecondary & Workforce

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As the buzz around free college programs continues to grow, there are opportunities for confusion between what constitutes debt-free college and free college. With so many conversations in the public space, it is important to avoid using these terms interchangeably and instead, use them in ways that provide clarity.

To graduate college debt-free is to graduate without loans. Students borrow for many reasons and to cover a range of expenses when they attend college. Being able to afford college requires being able to pay for not only tuition and fees, but also food, housing and other expenses incurred when forgoing a job in favor of attending college. These other expenses can exceed the typical cost of attendance and be particularly complex for students who also financially support their families or dependents.

Free college programs vary in their design — with many using the method of last-dollar awarding to cover the cost of tuition or unmet financial need, but not necessarily the student’s full cost of attendance. This type of free college program may best be described as a grant that provides tuition payments for a student. In the 2018-19 academic year, tuition and fees account for 47 percent of the average cost of attendance. For the remaining expenses, students are left with a few options — work income, savings or loans. Many free college programs require full-time attendance, leaving fewer hours for a paying job, so some may borrow to cover their remaining expenses — thus, incurring debt.

This is why free college programs should not be assumed to be debt-free.

That’s not to say free college programs aren’t beneficial. The value of these programs cannot be measured in cost alone. The “free” message helps to reduce barriers to college enrollment, especially for low-income or first-generation students. Students may also receive indirect benefits of taking on less debt, such as reduced stress or being able to work fewer hours and have more time to devote to their studies.

What this does mean is that using the term “debt-free college” should be intentional. The conversation around debt-free college should include the term “free college” — rather than replace it — and include a broader discussion of all the expenses that students incur and the options they have for payment.

Author profile
Policy Analyst at Education Commission of the States |

Karole contributes to the work of the policy team with a focus on topics in postsecondary education. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, Karole worked for the Legislative Audit Bureau, the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and the Institute for Research on Poverty in her home state of Wisconsin. When Karole is not analyzing legislation or preparing data insights, she can be found exploring the state of Colorado and searching for the best vegan food in Denver.

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