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To boost enrollment and meet workforce needs, many states are offering free community college programs. It’s a well-intentioned (and bipartisan) idea to help people get the credentials they need, and states build their supply of college-educated workers.

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But does free really mean free? Do these programs effectively bring students back to college? And does saying something’s free diminish its value?

Research shows that free college has had some effect, but not as much as you might think.

It doesn’t mean that students still don’t have to pay for food, rent, books, supplies, transportation and other living costs, which at community colleges often cost more than taking classes. That can stop them from taking states up on the offer. And private colleges and universities vying for the same students quietly oppose having to compete with free.

We’ll tell you what you need to know about free college. You’ll also find a searchable database of free college programs at the end of this transcript.

“College Uncovered” is made possible by Lumina Foundation.

Listen to the whole series


Scroll to the end of this transcript to find out more about this topic, and for links to more information.

Kirk: Can we get a Guinness and a pint of Jack’s Abbey?

Bartender: You got it.

Kirk: Thanks.

Jon. What are we doing? I thought we were podcasting.

Kirk: We are, Jon, but we’re also grabbing a pint at a local bar — cheers! — and getting some free snacks.

Jon: I like free. Hey — wouldn’t it be great if college was free?

Jack Freer: Yeah, not everyone is born with the same economic opportunities.

Shane Garrity: Yeah, college is a time where you can make so many friends, so many connections that can carry you forward into your personal and professional life.

Lila Cardillo: I think making college, like, ridiculously expensive, just, you know, doesn’t qualify a lot of people for entering certain professions. And just so it makes the wealth divide greater.

Kirk: That’s Jack Freer, Shane Garrity, and Lila Cardillo.

I mean, politically speaking, Jon, when it comes to college, perhaps nothing is more popular than free. And, again, that’s politically speaking.

Jon: Yeah. Of course, political talk is also free, or at least cheap. And if you stand in front of a group of Americans at, say, a bar like this one and say, ‘Hey, maybe everybody doesn’t need a college degree,’ most of the bar will not their heads and probably agree with you.

Kirk: But then if you say, ‘Yo, we all have to agree that young people need more than a high school degree to get a good job’ — nowadays, everybody at the bar will also not their head in agreement.

Jon: That’s why a lot of states are ending up in the middle. They’re making community college free.

Kirk: So where do I sign up? I love free stuff — like these bar snacks. But is free college really free? You might be surprised to hear the answer.

Kirk: This is College Uncovered, a podcast pulling back the ivy to reveal how colleges really work.

And we should note here, Jon, that our little podcast is already free, as they say, wherever you get your podcasts.

Jon: Yeah, it is, but it’s also priceless, Kirk. I’m Jon Marcus at The Hechinger Report …

Kirk: … and I’m Kirk Carapezza with GBH. Colleges don’t want you to know how they operate. So GBH …

Jon: … in collaboration with The Hechinger Report, is here to show you.

Okay, so the number of people in the U.S. with some college credit, but no degree or certificate to show for it — that number keeps growing. It’s now north of 40 million, the highest that it’s ever been. And since the pandemic, hundreds of thousands more students have dropped out, most of them low income or the first in their families to go to college. That’s the idea behind free community college. It’s a chance to woo those students back.

Kirk: Right. More states are offering free community college. Two thirds of states now have some form of free, from Michigan to New Mexico, Rhode Island to Oregon. The details differ from state to state, but free college has widespread support.

Community colleges like it because they’re facing an enrollment plunge. Businesses like it to meet their need for skilled workers. And it’s just plain good for students, who see their lifetime earnings rise. Or that’s the thinking. But it’s not quite so simple.

So do these new programs help students graduate on time and with less debt? You might be surprised to learn that free college isn’t as effective at helping students finish college as you’d think.

Today on the show: ‘The Real Cost of Free.’

I went over to Bunker Hill Community College here in Boston to meet Magno Garcia. Since he graduated from high school, Garcia has enrolled in Bunker Hill three times off and on, commuting from his home in nearby Chelsea. Back then, Garcia worked long hours in retail and as an air-conditioner technician so he could avoid student loan debt. He wanted a degree in accounting so he could move up to management at the HVAC company. But the first two times he enrolled, he ran out of cash, time and energy.

Magno Garcia: I wasn’t really motivated, so it was, like, the worst idea, because I paid for everything out of pocket.

Kirk: What do you think you needed at the time?

Magno Garcia: Guidance. I never felt like I had someone that was, like, ‘Hey, I’m here to help.’

Kirk: Overwhelmed, Garcia dropped out twice to put food on the table and pay rent. He kept working retail. He was also devoting time to a personal passion: producing his own music videos on YouTube. Now, at 34 years old, Garcia is back at Bunker Hill. And, Jon, guess what drew him back to college?

Jon: Let me guess. Was it because it was free?

Kirk: Indeed it was. Massachusetts recently began offering free community college for anyone over the age of 25 without a degree.

Magno Garcia: I’m taking advantage of that.

Kirk: Massachusetts education officials say returning students like Garcia are responsible for the first public college enrollment increase in nine years. Enrollment in public four-year colleges slowed, but community college enrollment in Massachusetts rose by 8 percent last year. All 15 community college campuses, including Bunker Hill, saw a spike. But that’s not necessarily the full story.

Davis Jenkins: It’s good news in that there’s been some stabilization, but, overall, you know, enrollment’s down.

Jon: Davis Jenkins studies community colleges at Columbia University. Despite the recent uptick, Jenkins points out that community college enrollment in Massachusetts is actually down nearly 40 percent since 2014. It’s also down nationwide. The number of community college students across the country dropped nearly 30 percent over the last 10 years.

Davis Jenkins: Community college enrollment was hit hardest during Covid, and it had been dropping for a decade before that.

Jon: To get more students back in classrooms, some political leaders want to expand free community college to all state residents, regardless of age.

But free doesn’t always work out for students. Because, while, yes, removing financial barriers is a good thing, many still can’t afford to stop working and focus on their studies. So they don’t graduate. While federal data doesn’t tell us the racial makeup of the 40 million Americans with some college and no degree, researchers say they’re likely to be more diverse, the first in their families to go to college and from low-income backgrounds, compared to their peers who did graduate.

Amanda Fernandez: We certainly have a long, long way to go — in particular, for Latino students who still to this day are experiencing the ramifications of an inequitable education, and in particular during the pandemic, when these issues were exacerbated.

Kirk: Amanda Fernandez is CEO of Latinos for Education. She says free community college signals progress. But a poll commissioned by Latinos for education and the nonprofit Mass., Inc. finds disparities in attitudes about going to college among people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. And Latino parents were the least likely to say their child participated in college prep programs. Another survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education finds Latinos with a high school degree are more likely to be unsure how to enroll and how to pay for college.

So I asked Amanda Fernandez: Is there an information gap?

Amanda Fernandez: It’s a communication gap and it’s a belief gap. And that’s where I think it’s actually lower-hanging fruit. Because our families want their children to go to college, but they don’t have the information about how to even get into an early college program, how to get into a vocational education program. And so, therefore, their students don’t believe or their children don’t believe that they can access higher education and therefore they lose interest.

Kirk: That interest is so important, right? Because in many Latino communities, this is often a family decision.

Amanda Fernandez: Our Latino families are having conversations with their kids about, ‘What are you going to do after high school?’ But they’re not confident in being able to say, ‘You will go to college because we know how to access financial aid, we know how to apply for it.’

Kirk: Does taxpayer support for free college programs help students access college, and — more importantly — graduate?

Amanda Fernandez: I do believe some of that scholarship money does go to other supports that are needed for persistence in the community college space. But, again, you have to think about the longer term and the realities of, you know, when the average age of our community college students is around 27 years old and they have lives and they have to support their own families and children and extended families, you have to support the continued persistence.

Kirk: Sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab agrees. Goldrick Rab is a senior fellow at Education Northwest, a nonprofit organization in Portland, Oregon. She’s author of “Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid and the Betrayal of the American Dream.” And she’s a longtime advocate for free community college programs.

Sara Goldrick-Rab: For 20 years, my research has suggested that this is a very viable part of the solution, and that’s what I’d call it. I’d call it part of the solution.

Kirk: She says free community college will help close some of these gaps, but it’s not a panacea.

Sara Goldrick-Rab: It’s not meant to be all things. It’s not meant to solve every problem around college affordability, but it’s very clear that it’s targeted to the people who most need college to be affordable. Those are the people who right now are not going at all.

Jon: Goldrick-Rab says making college tuition free is not enough, because going to college costs much more than just tuition. Even if politicians do promote free college as the answer.

Sara Goldrick-Rab: They’re not accounting for the full range of costs. The number one college affordability issue in this country is housing. That’s what people are grappling with. And we’re not talking about that because most people don’t live on campus, for example.

Jon: Kirk, that’s one of the issues with these free programs. It’s not always clear what’s covered. For example, some provide funding for living expenses, but most of them do not.

The total cost of attending college includes food, housing, books, supplies, health care, transportation and a bunch of other costs. In fact, non-tuition expenses are the majority of the cost in public higher education. And if you want to find the true cost of attendance from a college, good luck, because that’s based on numbers provided by the colleges. They report them to the federal government. But they’re just estimates for everything except tuition and fees. And those estimates — they’re often grossly incorrect.

So for all of these reasons, supporters of free college say funneling everyone into a system where you’re supposed to graduate within two or four years is the wrong approach. It will only make educational inequities worse.

Kirk: And they say free community college changes who’s going to college. And it helps colleges reach students who will get the biggest return on investment.

Not everyone agrees with that logic, though, Jon. I went to Nashville, Tennessee, to check out the free college program there firsthand. Former Gov. Bill Haslam told me he had made the successful push for free community college because Tennessee employers need well-trained workers.

Bill Haslam: We had looked out at the state and realized that of all the jobs are going to exist in Tennessee in 2025, 55 percent of them would require a degree or certificate beyond high school.

Kirk: It was all about churning out more qualified workers and attracting companies to locate or relocate there. At the time Haslam said this, only a third of Tennessee’s population held a degree or certificate, so Haslam said he wanted to do something that would shock the system and then get people to think:

Bill Haslam: ‘Hey, I never thought that I would go to school, but maybe I will.’ If you haven’t grown up with the thought that college is a real possibility for you, then it’s not something talked about at the dinner table. It’s not on the radar screen.

Kirk: And it worked. At first.

Community college enrollments spiked 5 percent the first year, with thousands of low-income students taking up the offer. Students like Eric Bihembo, who immigrated from Uganda as a teen, signed up.

Eric Bihembo: College wasn’t on my radar.

Kirk: Did you think it was too good to be true?

Eric Bihembo: It was too good to be true. I mean, free money where I could go and get a free education. It was overwhelming. At the same time, I just wanted to check it out.

Kirk: Going from Uganda to Nashville, was there a bit of a culture shock?

Eric Bihembo: We don’t have these big buildings where you can stand and compare yourself and see how small you are.

[‘Pomp and Circumstance,’ from the Tennessee State commencement ceremony]

Kirk: In the end, Bihembo graduated from community college in Nashville and then completed a Tennessee Highway Patrol cadet program.

Where do you see yourself in 10 or 20 years?

Eric Bihembo: My dream job is one day to work with the FBI doing cybersecurity. But I want to start as a police officer to pick up all the experience and be able to apply it in the in the bigger world.

Kirk: Researchers say Bihembo, who graduated in two years, is the exception. Because while more students enrolled in Tennessee’s community colleges, it didn’t mean a higher percentage graduated.

Jennifer Freeman: It boosts enrollments at first, but those people don’t necessarily stay in school.

Jon: Jennifer Freeman is with the nonprofit Jobs for the Future. Turns out, even though most community college students say their goal is to earn a degree, they usually don’t.

Only one in five adults who re-enrolled in Tennessee’s free college program graduated after three years.

To retain students, Freeman suggests improving support systems and tailoring offerings to students career goals. Otherwise …

Jennifer Freeman: … people go back and then they kind of go back to the same college format, structure that didn’t work for them in the first place.

Jon: Columbia’s Davis Jenkins agrees. He says, sure, free helps, but two-year schools will ultimately need to improve their product.

Davis Jenkins: Community colleges. I love them, but they generally don’t treat adults well. They’re going to have to move toward more of a 24-seven advising. They’re going to have to schedule the courses when students need them, not Tuesday through Thursday between 10 and 1, when the professors want to teach.

Jon: Sara Goldrick-Rab, on the other hand, defends these programs, because she says no-cost college broadens access and benefits society. She says the current financial aid system, which requires filling out complicated forms and figuring out formulas to calculate how much college will cost, is an obstacle for too many students.

Sara Goldrick-Rab: Things that knock out a given cost, like tuition, are more promising than things that are predicated on jumping through a bunch of hoops.

Kirk: And advocates say these programs help students like Rebecca Beaucher in Massachusetts. At 45, Beaucher returned to college last fall thanks to the state’s new free college program. Beaucher started college 20 years ago, but quickly dropped out because working full time as an IT analyst and parenting spread her too thin. Going back wasn’t easy, either.

Rebecca Beaucher: I think I was intimidated. You know, it had been so long since I had been in a class environment.

Kirk: She says the free program was the enticement she needed to re-enroll at Northern Essex Community College. She recalls when she heard the news that the program passed in the state’s budget.

Rebecca Beaucher: My heart just dropped and I immediately burst into tears and I sent a text to my husband, like, this is it. Game on. I’m finally getting my degree. I’m just, I’m going for it. I can’t believe this finally happened.

Kirk: This year, Bouchet is taking business classes online and says her goal is to earn her doctorate someday.

Rebecca Beaucher: On my headstone I want it to say, ‘Dr. Rebecca Beaucher.’ I understand that I’m 45, and I may get that when I’m 90. And I am absolutely okay with this.

Jon: So free college is a mixed bag. Some students might only be interested in taking a few classes to brush up their skills. Others might want to get a doctorate someday. But we do know the vast majority are hoping for a four-year degree.

Surveys show more than 80 percent of community college students aspire to earn a bachelor’s degree. Only a small percentage do, though — just about 13 percent, even within six years. That’s according to the U.S. Department of Education. And those rates are even lower for low-income, male, Black and Hispanic students.

Kirk: Yeah. Economists like Josh Goodman at Boston University say there are lots of reasons why low-income students might be better served if they went straight to a four-year college.

Josh Goodman: It’s a combination of things. One is we know the community colleges are less well funded per student than a four-year institution, so they have fewer resources. [Students] are with peers who are academically weaker. And that may have an influence on their success in their own coursework. And though many students plan to start at a community college and then transfer to the four-year sector, many of the students who plan to do that don’t end up succeeding, either because they misunderstand that transfer process or because the alignment between their community college coursework and the requirements of the four-year institutions is not always great.

Kirk: We have a whole episode just about that topic from our first season. It’s called ‘The Transfer Trap,’ so be sure to check it out.

Jon: Okay, so, Kirk, I guess the old saying there’s no such thing as a free lunch — that still holds.

Kirk: Yeah. So here are a few key takeaways from this episode.

One: Do your research. Make sure you’re enrolling in a free program that meets your career and personal goals.

Two: Ask about retention and graduation rates. Because if nobody graduates, then free doesn’t really mean anything.

And three: If your aim is to earn a bachelor’s degree someday, ask whether the credits you earn will even transfer and if they’ll transfer to your major. Because while most community college students say they want to earn a four-year degree, few do so within six years, and the rate is even lower for first-generation, low-income, Black and Latino students like Magno Garcia.

Back at Bunker Hill. Garcia told me the new free community college program for adults there renewed his hope to earn a degree.

Magno Garcia: Third time’s a charm. I actually feel very confident saying that I will graduate.

Kirk: Garcia has found a support network on Bunker Hill’s campus through a program designed for men of color. That’s another good takeaway, Jon: Find a support network on campus.

Garcia is now working as a social worker at a high school while wrapping up his associate degree, and he switched his major from accounting to psychology.

Magno Garcia: It made a huge difference. I was enjoying my classes. The subject matters were more interesting to me than, you know, crunching in numbers.

Kirk: This fall, he plans to transfer to a four-year university and pursue a bachelor’s degree so he can become a teacher or a school counselor.

This is College Uncovered from GBH and The Hechinger Report. I’m Kirk Carapezza …

Jon: … and I’m Jon Marcus. We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email to And tell us what you want to know about how colleges really operate. And if you’re with a college or university. Tell us what you think the public should know about higher ed.

This episode is produced and written by Kirk Carapezza …

Kirk: … and Jon Marcus, and it was edited by Jeff Keating. Meg Woolhouse is supervising editor. Ellen London is executive producer. Mixing and sound design by David Goodman and Gary Mott. We had production assistants from Diane Adame.

Theme song and original music by Left Roman out of MIT, and all of our music is by college bands.

Mei He is our project manager, and head of GBH podcasts is Devin Maverick Robins.

College Uncovered is a production of GBH News and The Hechinger Report and distributed by PRX.

It’s made possible by Lumina Foundation.

Thank you so much for listening.

For more information about the topics covered in this episode:

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