Tennessee is not the only state that has experimented with free community college.
Not familiar with Tennessee's free community college program? Learn more
A lesser-known program in New York shows that free community college initiatives can work to expand access to higher education, argue two industry leaders in the Washington Post.
Under the president's plan, America's College Promise, the federal government would cover 75% of the cost of tuition for two years, approximately $3,800 per student on average. The remaining 25% would be covered by states that choose to participate.
To be eligible, community college students will have to maintain a 2.5 GPA, make progress toward a credential, attend classes at least half-time, and come from families that make less than $200,000 per year.
Reversing state disinvestment
Waiving tuition at community colleges is necessary because rising tuition costs have made higher education an unattainable goal for many students, argue Sara Goldrick-Rab, director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, which researches ways to improve college affordability and outcomes, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
As Goldrick-Rab and Weingarten point out, higher tuition costs are, in many ways, the result of states disinvesting from higher education. Over the last several years, states have reduced funding for colleges, forcing them to seek their operating costs elsewhere—usually in tuition revenue. Rising tuition has made college unaffordable for low-income individuals.
Evidence of success
America's College Promise borrows many facets from a program launched last academic year in Tennessee called Tennessee Promise, which pays community college tuition for local high school graduates.
But the City University of New York has been running a free community college program since 2007.
The Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) waives tuition and also provides money for textbooks, transportation, coaching, and tutoring.
ASAP also works to meet non-financial needs of students with flexible scheduling and personal support. Students receive academic and career counseling. Classes are scheduled to accommodate work shifts. Finally, ASAP organizes students into cohorts so they feel like a community despite not living together on campus.
ASAP has already produced dramatic results, say Goldrick-Rab and Weingarten.
ASAP students have better retention and graduation rates, and earn more credits per student. Recently, the New York Times reported that 57% of last year's ASAP students graduated within three years—compared with a 15% three-year completion rate at other urban community colleges.
Furthermore, as Goldrick-Rab and Weingarten point out, "the return on investment is stunning—more than $205,000 in increased tax revenues and savings in social safety-net costs for a program cost of only $3,900 per student."
They express hope that America's College Promise will help bring these opportunities to more students.
But they also point out a side benefit to the program: better support for faculty who have been squeezed by recent funding cuts. "The president’s plan has the potential to change not only the lives of millions of students, but also the careers of the underresourced and underappreciated professionals who work there," they write (New York Times, 1/15; Svrluga, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 2/2).
Next in Today's Briefing
Around the industry: Student raises $254,000 for Detroit man commuting 21 miles by foot