ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
We're going to spend the next few minutes exploring two words - free college. More than a dozen states offer what are commonly called free college programs. But NPR's Cory Turner reports they don't agree on a few basics.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Like what does free mean, and what qualifies as college? The confusion is crystal-clear in a new review of these statewide free college programs from The Education Trust.
KATIE BERGER: I get paid to do this 40 hours a week, and it was very challenging for me to understand.
TURNER: Katie Berger is a senior analyst at the nonprofit advocacy group. And she says they focused especially on how these programs serve vulnerable students.
BERGER: I can't imagine how challenging it is for low-income students and first-generation students to wrap their heads around this.
TURNER: Tiffany Jones is director of higher ed policy at The Education Trust. And she says this new review covers programs in 15 states.
TIFFANY JONES: California, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland...
TURNER: Jones says one reason some free college programs aren't really free is they only cover tuition. And for many students, that's just not good enough.
JONES: They have to eat. They have to have shelter. They have to buy books. If a politician is selling a program saying, I'm making college free and they're not dealing with any of that stuff, that can be really problematic.
TURNER: The Education Trust evaluated states' programs using a handful of tough questions. What other costs do they cover? Are they open to older students? And here's a big one. How many years of college do they pay for? For example, Indiana pays for four and scored high marks in the review.
TERESA LUBBERS: It's our promise to Hoosiers that at a time when we know college is more important than ever, we're going to make sure you can afford to go.
TURNER: Teresa Lubbers is Indiana's commissioner for higher education. And she says her state's program stands out for a few reasons. It's been around for nearly three decades. The money does not automatically disappear if a low-income student gets other aid. But what really makes it stand out is that students sign up for it in middle school. And it's targeted specifically to low-income and first-generation students.
LUBBERS: Many times they've thought college wasn't for them. And we tell them early it is.
TURNER: The price to the state might give some sticker shock - $160 million last year. By comparison, Oregon's relatively new free college program costs around 20 to 25 million a year. That's because instead of covering four years of college, Oregon covers two at a community college. But this may be the biggest difference.
BEN CANNON: The architects envisioned a program for all students regardless of income.
TURNER: Ben Cannon is executive director of Oregon's higher ed coordinating commission. He says because his state's program had no income caps its first year, fewer than half of students were low-income. But Cannon hopes that Oregon's approach will ultimately help reach more students who need it most.
CANNON: Simplicity in messaging is really, really important for these programs.
TURNER: Cannon says broadening access reduces stigma for low-income students and sends all a clear message - college is within reach.
CANNON: Whether that is a price worth paying given we're funding students who don't need the financial help I think we need more time and more research to better ascertain.
TURNER: Sara Goldrick-Rab, who studies college access at Temple University, urges patience. The free college movement is young, she says, and states can only do so much without more help from Washington.
SARA GOLDRICK-RAB: When we think about the pace of progress in this country for any big win, this is actually quite remarkable.
TURNER: More than half of states now offer or have proposed some kind of free college program, and the rest are no doubt watching and taking notes. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.
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