These States May Enact Tuition-Free College in 2023

Advocates don't expect action at the federal level, but new governors and legislatures open the door for the free college movement to make gains in some states.
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  • A leader in the free college movement told BestColleges he expects states in the Midwestern U.S. to adopt tuition-free programs.
  • Thirty-two states already have some form of tuition-free college.
  • Experts do not, however, anticipate federal action to enact free community college.

As new politicians are sworn in at statehouses across the country, there's renewed hope for the expansion of tuition-free college, particularly in the Midwest.

Morley Winograd, current chairman and former CEO of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, told BestColleges that he is optimistic there will be a flurry of action to advance the initiative in many states in the Midwest. A form of tuition-free college is already available in 32 states, but the campaign has failed to take root at the federal level.

With a split chamber newly sworn into the U.S. Congress, Winograd said he expects the initiative to continue to stall at the federal level.

"I think the fact that Republicans are united at the federal level — but not at the state level — that makes federal action quite problematic for the next [two] years at least," he said.

Partisanship has not deterred individual states from enacting free college programs, however. For example, traditionally Republican or split states — including Tennessee, Kansas, and West Virginia — all have some form of tuition-free college.

It is an issue that has largely moved with Democratic governors, however.

Movement in the Midwest

Winograd identified four states that he thinks can plausibly expand or pass some form of free college over the year. Those are:

  • Pennsylvania
  • Illinois
  • Minnesota
  • Michigan

Pennsylvania is on the list, he said, because the state's governor-elect, Josh Shapiro, has spoken favorably about free college tuition. The outgoing Democratic governor, meanwhile, was not a staunch policy advocate.

Shapiro will also take office with his party in control of the state Legislature, a benefit his predecessor did not enjoy.

"That's clearly a state that we think has a great chance to increase the number of states and the number of students who could access tuition-free college," Winograd said.

Similarly, Illinois Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker — recently reelected by a healthy margin — has been pro-tuition-free college.

However, Winograd said the state might not have the financial flexibility needed to start one of these programs.

"Like Pennsylvania, [Illinois] would be a big add," he said.

Democrats now control the governorship and the state Legislature in Minnesota, opening the door for free college in the state, Winograd said. Minnesota has experimented with college affordability programs in the recent past, so this may be the state's chance to implement something more impactful.

Lastly, Michigan is another state that has taken baby steps toward free college in recent years, particularly with the Michigan Reconnect initiative. Promise programs, which make college tuition-free for recent high school graduates, are largely place-based in Michigan cities including Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, and Lansing.

So, 2023 could be the year to extend those programs statewide.

Winograd notes that these states will likely be battleground states in the 2024 presidential election. Instituting tuition-free college may allow Democrats to curry favor with younger voters who are increasingly playing a deciding factor in elections.

Will Maine Make a Move?

Advocates for tuition-free community college will keep a sharp eye on Maine in 2023.

The state recently passed a temporary program that makes community college free for Maine students who graduate high school between 2020 and 2023. The program is paid for using funds distributed to the state due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That window is soon to close, but advocates hope Maine will make the program permanent.

Winograd said that, thus far, no state has provided free college and later taken that benefit away.

"We have never seen a state say, 'We hope you enjoyed free college, but your brothers and sisters won't get it,'" he said.

Standstill at the Federal Level

The Campaign for Free College Tuition has largely given up hope that the U.S. Congress will pass any form of free community college during President Joe Biden's administration.

Biden proposed free community college in his landmark Build Back Better plan. However, that bill died a slow death, with only parts of his platform passing over the past year. Free community college was a sticking point that moderate Democrats did not support.

Additionally, Winograd said the business community in different states has helped drive tuition-free college programs across the country at the state level.

However, national business associations seem more focused on taxes and other economic issues at the national level. They would be essential in generating federal momentum, but they have failed to pick up the cause so far.