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Free college? Actually, some states are already offering it to students.

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We’ve heard a lot from some of the Democratic presidential candidates about plans to provide free tuition at public colleges — and to some people, the notion seems pie-in-the-sky. Yet it is actually happening in a number of states that offer free tuition to students who come from poor and middle-class families.

Nearly 20 states have some kind of program that covers the cost of tuition at two-year and/or four-year public colleges after a student exhausts grants, financial aid and any other financial resources. There are eligibility requirements in each program that vary from state to state.

The latest state to create such a program is Washington, where, under a new law, the state will provide full-tuition scholarships to any Washington public college or university for families earning up to approximately $50,000 a year. Partial scholarships will be available to families who earn the state’s median family income, about $88,000 a year.

This post looks at Washington’s program and how it will work and be financed. It was written by state Rep. Drew Hansen (D), the prime sponsor of the legislation that created the program, and Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher-education policy and sociology at Temple University. Goldrick-Rab is also the founding director of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, where she regularly advises state legislators on higher-education measures.

It seems like a no-lose idea: Free college. But nobody can agree on the details.

By Drew Hansen and Sara Goldrick-Rab

Free college tuition proposals have multiplied in recent years, from promises in presidential campaigns to legislation at the state level. Two key questions relate to eligibility — which students and colleges qualify — and cost: how will we pay for it? Washington State recently became the latest to enact a free college tuition program, and both its policy design and its innovative funding source deserve national attention.

The Washington plan will provide full-tuition scholarships to any public college or university in Washington for families making under around $50,000 per year, with partial scholarships up to the state’s median family income (around $88,000 per year). Students can use these scholarships for community college or any college or apprenticeship eligible for state financial aid.

Students qualify no matter their path, whether a 13-week certificate in welding at a community college, an apprenticeship or a computer science bachelor’s degree from a research university. Part-time students are included, along with those attending full time.

Washington does not limit scholarships to recent high school graduates: adults already in the workforce are eligible as long as they don’t already have a bachelor’s degree. These inclusive features distinguish Washington’s plan from states such as Tennessee (which limits eligibility to community colleges) and Oregon (which limits eligibility to recent high school graduates). Instead, Washington’s plan will help a broad range of students pursue a broad range of college and apprenticeship options.

Of course, we know that free college tuition only partially addresses the barriers students face. Students don’t complete college for many reasons: they can’t get into oversubscribed classes, they are homeless or food-insecure, or they don’t have advisers helping them navigate college. The Washington legislation addresses these barriers with a significant investment in the colleges themselves, with most of the institution-level funding going to the community colleges that educate the majority of students.

This approach is also unique to Washington: instead of making college tuition-free and simply hoping colleges will be able to handle an influx of new students, Washington invests in the faculty and supports that will help students complete college and get into the workforce.

All of this costs money: just under $1 billion over four years.

But Washington has identified an innovative funding source: a surcharge on businesses that depend on higher education (accounting, engineering, architecture and so on), with large technology companies such as Microsoft and Amazon — both of which supported the bill — paying the highest rates. This will create a dedicated revenue stream to support the plan from businesses that depend on higher education, which is unusual (for example, Tennessee uses lottery money to fund its free community college plan).

Washington still has room to improve. Over time it will be important to include more students from Washington’s middle class, who are increasingly squeezed by high housing prices and inadequate wages. The Washington plan already gives these families some tuition assistance; it should build on this and expand the partial-tuition scholarships for middle-income families in future years.

But Washington has just made a transformational investment in the state’s future — and improved on all previous state free college efforts.

This is not a “free college” slogan with no policy substance and no way to pay for it. Washington’s example shows that the seemingly impossible is clearly possible, and should serve as a model for the rest of the nation.