There’s been a great deal of chatter around the topic of free college recently. Because a lot of that chatter is along the lines of, “Why save for college? It’s going to be free!” I think it’s worth a quick review of the content of actual free college proposals.

This week, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal introduced the College for All Act, which brings several common threads together in a single bill. Consistent with several of Biden’s campaign proposals, the Act includes the following:

  • Tuition-free community college for all students
  • Tuition-free public colleges and universities and HBCUs for students from families earning less than $125,000
  • Doubling the maximum Pell Grant to $12,990 and allowing its use for non-tuition expenses including room and board and books

December’s changes to the FAFSA include expansion of Pell Grant eligibility as well, using adjusted gross income rather than EFC to determine eligibility and linking eligibility to federal poverty limits starting with the 2023-2024 school year. Thus, more students will become eligible for Pell Grants due to the FAFSA simplification, and if the College for All Act passes, Pell-eligible students will be able to supplement free tuition with Pell Grants for non-tuition expenses.

First and foremost, these changes would be a tremendous benefit to about 75% of US households who would qualify for free tuition. But there are some caveats:

  • Free college does not mean “everyone goes where they want for free.” Notably absent from the list of eligible institutions are private colleges, which currently educate more than 1/4 of college students.
  • “Free” refers to tuition only. With the expanded Pell Grant, a student in a two-parent family of four would be eligible if the household income were at or below $46,375. Thus, about half of students– those whose household incomes fall between $46,375 and $125,000– who would be eligible for free tuition would still be on the hook for room and board and books.

The biggest caveat, of course, is that the College for All Act is right now just a bill. And if your Schoolhouse Rock is a little rusty, here’s what that means:

I’m just a bill.
Yes, I’m only a bill.
And I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill.
Well, it’s a long, long journey
To the capital city.
It’s a long, long wait
While I’m sitting in committee,
But I know I’ll be a law some day
At least I hope and pray that I will
But today I am still just a bill.