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Community Colleges Announce Free Tuition Plans; TN Promise Remains Under Microscope in State, Nation

September 17, 2015

Since the establishment of the Tennessee Promise in 2014, the first statewide free community college effort, community college systems and states are outlining their own strategies to make a two-year education free for students in their region in attempt to create an educated, qualified workforce that addresses the needs of industry and promotes economic prosperity. While it may remain too early to judge the benefits and the costs of these programs – lawmakers and educational professionals remain divided on the issue. 

In Wisconsin, Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) announced a plan to offer tuition-free enrollment to low-income, academically qualified high school seniors starting in the fall of 2016. Called the MATC Promise, the privately funded program is intended boost MATC’s enrollment and create a pathway to receive a college degree for students from families who otherwise could not afford to send their kids to college.

In  exchange for MATC covering the difference between students' federal and state financial aid and the cost of tuition and fees, students will be required to perform at least eight hours of community service each semester, remain enrolled full-time for four consecutive semesters, and maintain a competitive GPA. MATC Promise students also will be required to attend regular workshops intended to enhance their education experience and prepare them to enter the workforce. This proposed plan is similar to programs in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan, Tennessee, and Illinois.

MATC will offer students remedial education courses during the summer session to help them prepare for colleges. They also will offer workshops including a seminar that will help families in preparing their federal applications for financial aid.

To fund the program, MATC launched a $1 million scholarship campaign to funded the program and several other scholarship programs. The first year of the program is projected to cost the system approximately $350,000. To cover future costs for the program, MATC intends to create an endowment.

In an attempt to help two economically distressed counties in North Carolina, Richmond Community College announced a plan to cover tuition and fees for many high school students in Richmond and Scotland counties. Also scheduled to begin in the fall of 2016, high school students who have at least a 3.0 grade-point average and have taken at least two college courses will be offered two free years of college. The community college projects to spend approximately $50,000 to $100,000 a year on the guarantee, which will be financed by the proceeds coming from the privately run campus bookstore.

In Massachusetts, a bill (H.1070) under consideration would make a community college education free at the state’s 15 community colleges where current enrollment is approximately 196,000 students. The bill is currently being reviewed by the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Higher Education. If the bill is passed, Massachusetts would become the third state to offer statewide free community college to its residents, joining Tennessee and Oregon.

In an attempt to gain public support for a national free community college plan, President Obama unveiled a new marketing push for free community college at an event in Michigan. The campaign, Heads Up America, aims to build public support for the administration’s proposed America’s College Promise program – a $60 billion plan to provide two years of free community college to qualifying student. The president’s plan includes establishment of an independent coalition of community college leaders, educators, politicians, foundations and businesses that will work to spread the different existing free two-year college models and recruit others interested in pushing the free tuition message nationally.

In addition to announcing Heads Up America, the president also released a new reportAmerica’s College Promise: A Progress Report on Free Community College. The new report details the president’s national program that provides free community colleges and highlights examples from community college systems and states across the country that have adopted similar plans.

The president’s plan is based upon the Tennessee Promise launched in 2014 by Gov. Bill Halsam. Gov. Haslam originated his free community college plan in 2008 while mayor of Knoxville, TN. The then mayor and his advisors intended for the program to serve as a workforce development initiative to increase the quality of the region’s workforce. Mayor Haslam was able to raise almost $1.2 million for the public private partnership. By the fall of 2009, the Knoxville-focused program helped 287 Tennessee students enroll in local community colleges.

Once elected governor, Haslam launched the $361 million endowment for Tennessee Promise using lottery revenues. In addition to maintain enrollment and achieving a 3.0 GPA, the program requires at least eight hours of community service per semester and students must meet with a mentor regularly.

After one year, Gov. Haslam still faces many critics including lawmakers and educational professionals from Tennessee. In an article from PBS, Steve Cohen, U.S. Representative for Tennessee's 9th Congressional District, criticized the governor’s program because only 13 percent of the students who start at community colleges graduate, within four years. Rep. Cohen contends that the program is a waste of resources that would be better served on an effort that helps students pay for a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution.  

Other critics argue that the other costs of attending college can make programs like MATC Promise and the Tennessee Promise less successful. The average student may spend up to five times the cost of tuition on books and other expenses directly related to attendance. Under many of the current free community college programs, the student receives no assistance to pay for these costs – leading to potentially high amounts of debt due to student loans or students dropping out. Many of the current plans, like MATC, only offset the difference between the cost of tuition and fees and the students existing federal/state support. They do not include a mechanism to help pay for these other costs for attendance. To address this issue, under the Obama administration’s proposal, federal grants would be used to pay for many of these costs for attendance.

An article for the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that Tennessee’s four-year colleges are seeing a decline in their attendance in 2015 due to the Tennessee Promise. While freshman enrollment at Tennessee community colleges has risen by 14 percent, several private and public schools have seen a decline in freshman enrollment, including 12 percent at the University of Tennessee at Martin and about 9 percent at its Chattanooga campus. Critics of free community college contend that these declines in enrollment, and the resulting lost revenue, may reduce the ability of already cash-strapped state schools to provide quality education.

Proponents, however, highlight both the economic and social benefits of free college education including the ability of community colleges to help workers gain the credentials necessary to qualify for well-paying jobs and the ability of community colleges to help individuals pull themselves out of poverty through higher earnings. As the demand for college educated workers increase, experts project that demand for college workers will rapidly grow by 2020,  proponents of free community college education contend that community colleges play a vital role in answering the demand. However, as highlighted by the Tennessee Promise example, there are still many concerns that need to be addressed.  

Massachusetts, North Carolina, Wisconsincommunity college, higher ed, white house