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The Growth Of Free College Programs: 5 Takeaways & 4 Strategies To Evolve Higher Education Marketing

February 6, 2019 Cliff Libby

Growth Of Free College Programs higher education

The idea of free tuition or universal college has been floating around for many years, with the rise of the College Promise program and loan forgiveness opportunities bringing free college to the forefront. According to an analysis by Inside Higher Ed, “Since the 2015 launch of the College Promise Campaign, the number of such programs has quadrupled to over 200 across 43 states.” Recent numbers from the College Promise Campaign indicate additional growth, with now more than 300 programs across 44 states, and 23 statewide. Free college programs vary, and can be state- or privately funded, often including a mix of requirements for applicants including non-traditional and returning students to qualify.

For returning students, adult learners or people interested in technical or trade schools, the options for free college can be more limited. However, Tennessee Reconnect and New York’s Excelsior Scholarship are trying to make it easier for older students to attend college. Though challenging to compete against, the excitement about free tuition opportunities can also provide an entry for education marketers to create new and progressive campaigns for their own schools, marketing similar or superior curriculums and services while staying competitive in the education market.

The Creation Of College Promise Programs Led To A Rise In Awareness About Free Tuition For Community Colleges And Other Higher Education Institutions

College Promise programs are place-based scholarship programs designed to provide free college tuition for eligible students interested in obtaining degrees, occupational certificates or credits that may transfer to other institutions. These programs are usually focused on the first two years of higher education and, as such, often apply to community colleges and public technical colleges.

Eligibility varies within each state’s program, from universal acceptance, age and income of applicant to merit requirements. While public knowledge of College Promise programs has increased, many states and private colleges have had free tuition programs in place for years, with varying funding models and acceptance guidelines.

Tuition Loan Forgiveness Programs Can Also Provide Opportunities For Students

Tuition Loan Forgiveness Programs free college

In addition to these free tuition initiatives, loan forgiveness programs can provide reassurance that there are ways to successfully manage college loans after graduation. The Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program can provide up to $17,500 in loan forgiveness on Subsidized and Unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loans after completing five years of teaching in certain qualifying schools or educational agencies.

In addition, there are several states that offer financial incentives designed to pay off school loans as a part of relocation packages. These programs may require participants to live in designated areas of the state, work in specific employment sectors and stay for certain lengths of time. The State of Kansas for instance offers upwards of $15,000 in loan forgiveness.

5 Takeaways About Free College Programs To Help Education Marketers Navigate The Options

1. The Need For An Educated Workforce Influences Free College Programs

A skilled workforce is often the motivating factor behind states eager to establish Promise programs. After the State of California implemented a program providing one year of free community college for new students, Assembly Member Miguel Santiago said: “In 2025, California will face an estimated shortage of one million college-educated workers needed to sustain the state’s workforce. This bill isn’t about voting and polling numbers. When you talk to most reasonable people, whether it be a CEO or leader of any firm, some sort [of] program leader, they want a more skilled workforce. It just makes economic sense.

2. Students Seeking Degrees In Specific In-Demand Fields May Find Free Tuition Programs Suited To Their Goals

Students who wish to earn degrees in STEM, healthcare, manufacturing or similarly in-demand fields, may qualify for free tuition in certain states. Kentucky’s Work Ready Scholarship and Arkansas’s ArFuture program are both designed for students seeking specific degrees or certifications in order to fill labor shortages and provide more trained workers in growing industries.

3. Free College Programs May Be Popular With Women And Returning Students

free college women students

The Tennessee Reconnect program provides free tuition to students 25 or older wishing to attend various Tennessee colleges. The flagship program exceeded expectations by receiving three times as many applicants, particularly from women, than stakeholders estimated. Among eligible schools are the 27 Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCAT), which offer one-or two-year degrees in technical and occupational education programs. The Reconnect program is an expansion of Tennessee’s successful Promise program, which is for new high school graduates interested in one of the state’s technical or community colleges.

4. Narrow Qualifications Can Hinder Free Tuition Programs For Some Non-Traditional Students

New York’s Excelsior Scholarship is the only state-funded Promise program that applies to four-year colleges. It is available to students of any age, a departure from earlier Promise programs, but NY requires students attend full-time, which can be a burden for returning students who must work while attending school. During the 2017-2018 academic year approximately 20,000 students received the Excelsior Scholarship.

5. The Funding From Free College Programs Typically Only Covers Tuition And Fees

Funding for free college programs in most states is often “last dollar.” This means students must use their Pell Grant money and any other grant aid first before any free tuition can be used to fill in the gap. Though students are receiving free education, some educators argue it hinders students who lack the means to cover room, board and books, since last dollar programs typically only cover tuition and fees.

A clear understanding of the various free tuition programs and funding options will better prepare education marketers from other schools that may not have such programs, to evolve their institution’s campaign strategies, particularly the benefits that are unique for non-traditional and returning students.                                             

4 Strategies To Help Education Marketers Remain Competitive With Schools Aligned With Free Tuition Programs

The growing ubiquity of free tuition programs can pose a challenge for education marketers. The following marketing strategies can be implemented by higher education marketers not aligned with free tuition programs to highlight how those schools and programs may be better or equally beneficial for prospective students.

1. Help Students Understand Their Financial Aid Options

students free college financial aid

Provide clear and easily understandable web content about available financial aid at your institution, including how to access in-person support with financial aid counselors. Education marketers should make clear that their institutions can help students apply for Pell Grants, and they should promote any school-specific scholarships and work-study programs, particularly those for non-traditional students, women and low-income applicants, who are often drawn to free tuition programs.

Most colleges and universities are now making net price calculators available on their web sites. This allows students to calculate what they can actually afford, and open up opportunities they may not have previously considered. According to, “Your net price is a college’s sticker price for tuition and fees minus the grants, scholarships, and education tax benefits you receive. The net price you pay for a particular college is specific to you because it's based on your personal circumstances and the college’s financial aid policies.”

2. Highlight Services That Help Non-Traditional Students Adjust To College Life

Community colleges and state schools associated with free tuition programs aren’t always able to provide the desired support services for returning and non-traditional students, who might need help with housing, childcare and job placement. Touting those offerings at your institution can help increase the interest level of prospective applicants. This can be done through campus websites and college fairs, plus social media, blogs and outreach by students who’ve received this assistance. 

3. Illustrate How Your School’s Program May Provide Return On Investment

Without overstating anything that could be perceived as misrepresentation, marketers can tout the success of their graduates and the distinctive elements of their programs, like on-site labs, equipment and teacher qualifications. With this marketing approach, students can be deployed as ambassadors for the school, posting YouTube videos of their lives after graduation or the work they are doing in school labs and clinics. Access to off-campus experiences, via externships, volunteering and mentoring are also valuable recruitment tools as they are tangible representations of the value and impact of the education

4. Be Bold In Comparing The Limitations Of Some Free College Programs With What You Have To Offer

free college marketing students loan forgiveness

Education marketers want access to higher education for as many people as possible. But not every school is right for everyone — even if it’s free. Marketers should research the restrictions of free college programs, in particular those that are merit-based, have age or location qualifiers, or require pursuing a specific degree, and highlight how the programs at their schools avoid those pitfalls. In addition, if the curriculum, student services and application process of your institution is more inclusive and comprehensive, creating more opportunities after graduation, this should be a part of an outreach campaign for prospective applicants that might also be drawn to free college programs.

Free college and loan forgiveness options will likely expand across the country. Education marketers, particularly for trade and technical schools, have an opportunity to leverage and cultivate enthusiasm for higher education with evolved and adaptable marketing campaigns promoting their competitive advantages. Campaigns that highlight similarly aligned or superior programs to those offered with free tuition programs, can give prospective students the chance to choose the best schools for their education and career objectives.  The broader market has created a very compelling narrative around cost, affordability, value and outcomes.  Leverage the buzz to make your institution stand out.

Reimagine Your Next Steps In Education Marketing

Learn more about DMS Education, an industry leader in matching schools with students who enroll and graduate. Using an extensive portfolio of owned-and-operated, education-focused properties and a diversified, multi-channel media mix, DMS Education provides predictable, scalable, reliable education marketing to a long list of traditional and for-profit colleges, trade schools, community colleges, boot camps, continuing education providers, OPMs and agencies.

A note from DMS Education: This article was updated on February 8, 2019 to reflect the most current information about the growth of Promise Programs. This information was provided by Hannah Leibson, communications fellow at the College Promise Campaign.

Contact DMS today to learn more about what DMS Education can do for you.

About the Author

Cliff Libby

Cliff Libby is the Executive Vice President and General Manager of Education at Digital Media Solutions (DMS), the fastest-growing independent digital performance marketing company. DMS helps its clients accelerate growth by deploying diversified and data-driven customer acquisition solutions that deliver scalable, sustainable and measurable marketing results. DMS performance marketing solutions connect the right consumers with the right offers at the right time to achieve the marketing objectives of our clients. DMS is continually innovating to provide new and emerging media and technology solutions that minimize waste and maximize results across the most competitive industries. Since its inception, DMS has demonstrated incredible year-over-year growth which has earned recognition on the Inc. 5000 list in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. An accomplished leader in higher education marketing, Libby comes to DMS with incredible experience in entrepreneurial and high-growth environments. Prior to joining DMS, Libby held management roles at CourseAdvisor – which was later rebranded to Avenue 100 Media – during its pivotal time as a Washington Post subsidiary. Libby started his career in admissions at Wheaton College Massachusetts and has since held executive leadership roles in a variety of software and technology service companies focused exclusively in higher education. Cliff graduated with a BA in American Studies from Wheaton College Massachusetts, and earned his MBA from Boston University Questrom School of Business. He resides in the Boston, MA area with his wife and children.

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