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Free college, State policy, Policy design, Administrative burden, Behavioral economics
Amid concerns over college affordability, many communities and states have enacted free college programs, and the Biden administration has brought momentum to federal free college discussions. Today, hundreds of college promise programs exist in communities across the country, including at least 20 state-sponsored free college programs. While free college policies have the potential to increase enrollment by reducing college costs, substantial variation in program design likely shapes how effective these programs are at expanding college access and reducing racial and economic disparities. This paper leverages insights from administrative burden and behavioral science to develop a typology of statewide free college programs, offering a framework for examining how policy design reduces (or increases) the burden individuals are likely to incur in receiving free college benefits. To do so, we collected data on design features of free college programs (e.g., eligibility criteria, application procedures, maintenance requirements) and created indices capturing the extent to which each program imposes administrative burden and, conversely, offers behavioral supports to help students navigate the aid process. Our findings offer insight for policymakers as they design free college programs and provide context for researchers examining the effectiveness and equity outcomes of statewide free college programs.