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Free Community College Bills Proposed in Congress, Passed in Oregon

July 16, 2015

With place-based policies for free higher education in place at the local level for years, recent developments have begun to apply these programs on a grander scale. This month, Oregon became the second state to provide free community-college to its citizens, while a team of congressional Democrats introduced a proposal to move forward with President Obama’s plan for free community-college nationally. The intention and purpose of these policies vary by scope; however, recent research provides some evidence that free college programs are helping increase educational attainment. 

Oregon is just the second state to embrace the free community-college tuition model, passing Senate Bill 81 this month, otherwise known as the Oregon Promise. Through the act, the state provides a $10 million appropriation for full-time tuition coverage for recent Oregon high school graduates attending and pursuing a certificate or degree at one of the state’s 17 community colleges.  Last year, Tennessee became the first state to offer free community college with their Tennessee’s Promise, a similar program. The first year of the Tennessee Promise received more than 35,000 applications – well more than the stated goal of 20,000. 

In January, President Obama announced a proposal that would make community college education tuition-free for millions of Americans. Earlier this month, a team of congressional Democrats introduced America’s College Promise Act of 2015, a bill to move this plan forward. While the proposal currently lacks any Republican backing, there is precedent on this topic for bipartisanship. For example, while Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and the majority in both the state House and Senate are democrats, the Tennessee Promise was championed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, According to the president of Indiana’s 32-campus Ivy Tech Community College, as quoted in a Politico article, every U.S. Congressman has a community college in their district, making the issue particularly relevant in national conversations.  

Place-based, tuition-free college programs are also beginning to emerge on a smaller scale. As identified in an Inside Higher Ed article, Minnesota, Washington D.C., the Community College of Philadelphia, and the City Colleges of Chicago are all either exploring or in the midst of free-tuition programs. Backed by anonymous donors, The Kalamazoo Promise, entering its tenth year, is an early example of a place-based tuition program. Depending on the number of years they were enrolled in Kalamazoo public schools, under this program students can be eligible to receive 65 percent to 100 percent in tuition reimbursement at any accredited college in Michigan. Similar place-based “promise” programs exist throughout the United States, especially in urban areas.

At the national level, the Obama administration has indicated that community colleges are essential institutions in building a stronger middle class. For states like Oregon and Tennessee, goals include increased educational attainment and better alignment between skills and jobs. For smaller communities, however, the goals appear to be more varied. For example, while the stated purpose of the Kalamazoo Promise was to spur local economic and community development, other civic leaders expressed alternative desires, such as: persuading professionals and their families to move into the Kalamazoo school district; creating a “college-going culture,” especially in the city’s low-income neighborhoods; and, leading to additional educational reforms and changes to boost college preparedness and enrollment.

For many free community-college programs, it is far too early to assess their impacts. Still, results are beginning to emerge for some of the older programs. For example, Tulsa Achieves has offered high school graduates in Tulsa County, OK, free tuition for three years or 63 credits – enough for an associate’s degree – since 2007, well before the Tennessee Promise went into effect. Grown out of a regional concern over a lack in educational attainment, early results indicate that completion rates for the program are better than those for community college students nationwide.  Nearly half of students have also gone on to get a four-year college degree, which represents a similar trend nationally, where 46 percent of all students who completed a degree at a four-year institution in the 2013-2014 academic year had previously been enrolled at a two-year institution at some point in the previous 10 years, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Recent analysis of the Kalamazoo Promise has also yielded encouraging results, finding that simple and generous scholarships can significantly increase educational attainment and provide net economic benefits. In a report by the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, an evaluation of the Kalamazoo Promise finds the program significantly increases college enrollment, college credits attempted, and credential attainment, with stronger effects occurring for minorities and women. The authors conclude by noting that place-based scholarship programs have the potential to be a cost-effective way of increasing educational attainment and future earnings for American students.  

Given the timetables for national education policy, it is unknown whether the America’s College Promise Act will be approved in the final months of the Obama administration. Because of this, movement is more likely to continue at the state and local level. Although results from Kalamazoo and Tulsa show promise for place-based tuition scholarship programs, additional research is needed to more effectively evaluate this policy prescription as a whole.

community college, higher ed