Robins chose to attend Virginia because of its AccessUVa program. For all students, it caps the amount of needed loans at about 25 percent of the in-state cost of attendance over four years. The rest it covers with grants. "They covered what federal grants didn't cover," says Robins, who did take out some loans. For low-income students, the plan replaces need-based loans with grants.
The University of Virginia is one of a growing number of institutions offering some form of free tuition in an effort to attract talented low-income students. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Michigan State University, Miami University in Ohio, the University of Pennsylvania, and Rice University have all eliminated loans from the financial aid packages of low-income students. Princeton University offers loan-free packages to all students who qualify for financial aid. Other schools, like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford universities, eliminate the parental contribution for low-income students but retain the student contribution. So the student may still require loans to cover tuition.
A completely different breed of free-tuition program is available at state or community colleges. The aim is to develop the local economy by investing in a high-quality, homegrown workforce. For example, in the Twin Cities, a pilot program, the Power of You, is recruiting graduates of Minneapolis or St. Paul, Minn., high schools to attend nearby two-year colleges tuition free. The program, sponsored by local businesses, hopes to attract students who otherwise wouldn't attend college.
Yet, says Sandy Baum, an economist at Skidmore College and the College Board, the reason that low-income students can't afford to go to community college is not the tuition, which is often covered by Pell grants, but because they can't afford not to work. "Free tuition at a community college pays only a fraction of the cost of going," Baum says. "If you can't live with your parents, then you have a very big cost to cover."
Other programs offer merit-based free tuition to top scholars who agree to go to college locally. A full tuition waiver to any of Arizona's three state universities is available for Arizona students who exceed standards on tests in math, reading, and writing, receive a B or better in 16 core subjects, and have either a 3.5 overall grade-point average or are otherwise in the top 5 percent of their class. "It's a good motivator," says Matt Wharton, a freshman at Arizona State University who had planned to join the Marines. Plus, Wharton can save on room and board by living at home and commuting to college. Room, board, and fees often make up half or more of the cost of attending public schools.
Similar statewide programs for scholarly students can be found in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, and West Virginia, while Indiana and Oklahoma have statewide free-tuition programs for families with financial need. Susan Dynarski, a public-policy professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, found that these merit-based programs are even more effective than need-based programs in getting more students into college and steering them toward four-year schools. They also help spur more members of racial and ethnic minorities to go to college.
Some colleges, like Cooper Union, Berea College, and the Curtis Institute of Music, are free for anyone who can get in.
Going to college tuition free is an increasingly attractive option for students who don't want to begin their working lives owing money on loans. "If there were more programs like this, more bright students who aren't able to pay for college would be in college," says Robins, a senior religious studies major who plans to attend graduate school next year and become a marriage counselor. "I think if I was more in debt, I would definitely go into the work field and pay off my debt instead of furthering my education."
By Emily Brandon