After Boost in Conversation, States Take Up The Call for Free College Tuition

By Brittany Hackett, Communications Staff

While the likelihood of a federal program is low under the Trump administration, many states are proposing programs that would cover college tuition for eligible college students to attend community college and, in some cases, four-year institutions, indicating that momentum for “free” college is still alive in the U.S.

The concept of free or publicly subsidized tuition is not new. Local communities, cities, and some states around the country for years have had programs that promise their citizens assistance with tuition, such as the Kalamazoo Promise, Los Angeles Community College District Promise, and the Georgia HOPE Scholarship.

But the 2008 recession, increasing levels of student loan debt, and national need for a more skilled workforce have led many states, and even the federal government, to explore ways to scale up those programs and provide free or no-cost tuition to millions of students.

“I think there is a growing interest among states and governments in [creating college promise programs],” Maggie Thompson, executive director of Generation Progress, said. “It’s been a bipartisan effort … to really pursue a college promise program as part of the local economic development strategy.”

While each program is different, they all have similar goals and eligibility requirements, offering assistance to resident students who are below a certain income level who are then required to maintain a certain GPA while enrolled. Sometimes the programs have a community service or local work commitments. In many cases, Thompson said, these programs are a mix of public funding from states and local governments, and private funding from local business or communities, which is one reason for the success of these programs on a smaller scale.

“What we’ve seen in some of these communities is these leaders pulling together a kitchen cabinet of people who think this is important for the area and just figuring out a way to do it,” Thompson said. “I think that is a strength in terms of the ways these programs are structured.”

For example, New Mexico’s Legislative Lottery Scholarship Program will pay a portion of tuition for students who have obtained a high school diploma or equivalent from the state and immediately enroll in a New Mexico public college or university. The program applies to students seeking a degree up to an undergraduate degree. The Oregon Promise, which began accepting applications in 2015, provides grants to recent high school graduates who will attend one of the state’s community colleges.

Tennessee is the most recent state to launch a promise program. Called the Tennessee Promise, the pilot program provides the state’s recent high school graduates a last-dollar scholarship that covers tuition and fees not covered by the federal Pell Grant, the HOPE Scholarship, or state student assistance funds. This scholarship can be used at any of the state’s 13 community colleges, 27 technical colleges, or other eligible institutions that offers associate degree programs. The program includes a community service requirement.

According to data released by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission in spring 2016, more than 80 percent of the 16,291 Tennessee Promise students who went to college in fall 2015 returned for their second semester. The program’s early success has prompted the state to offer a similar program for adult residents without degrees, who will be able to access to community college tuition-free through Tennessee Reconnect. If approved, Tennessee would be the first state in the country to offer all residents free college tuition, according to a news release announcing Tennessee Reconnect.

The success of many of these local and state programs sparked a national conversation in recent years about how to scale such efforts on a federal level. President Barack Obama proposed the America’s College Promise program in 2015, which would make two years of community college free for “responsible” students. The proposal was introduced before Congress but did not gain any traction, with many critics citing concerns around the program’s cost and whether it was the role of the federal government to make college free, an idea that was explored in NASFAA’s Assessing Tuition- and Debt-Free Higher Education task force report. The report, which was released in January 2017, includes findings that can help inform short-term state and local debt-free college programs, and possibly the creation of a framework for a national program at some point in the more distant future.

And while it is unlikely the Trump administration or current Congress will pick up the torch on the America’s College Promise program, Thompson said she hopes free college tuition will continue to be a part of the national conversation around higher education. So far this year, the governors in three states – New York, Rhode Island, and Hawaii – have announced proposals to establish college promise programs for their residents.

“My feeling is that as we go toward 2018, more people at the state level, especially governors and candidates for governor, will be paying a lot more attention to this as part of the their platforms,” Thompson said. “I think that where we are going to start to win in the message [of free tuition] is in some of these local communities because it’s not a political issue, it’s an economic development issue.”

There are numerous states, counties, cities, and local communities with college promise programs and other scholarship offerings for students. For comprehensive lists and resources, check out the Campaign for Free College Tuition and the College Promise Campaign.


Publication Date: 2/1/2017

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