What does 'free' community college mean? That depends.

Programs that work in some states could be disastrous in others

The concept of "free" community college varies greatly by state, making it difficult to implement a federal policy to make two-year institutions tuition-free, Anya Kamenetz reports for NPR's "nprEd."

Increasingly, community colleges throughout the country are depending on tuition for funding, but the degree to which they do varies greatly from state to state.

Community colleges in Vermont take in four and a half times more funding from students than from the state. Tuition in Vermont is also the highest in the United States, at $7,530. California, meanwhile, has the lowest tuition in the country, at $1,420 for the academic year.

It's challenging to create a policy that benefits both students and institutions. Under Tennessee's free tuition program, Tennessee Promise, students who are eligible for Pell Grants must use their awards to pay for school, with the state picking up the rest of the cost. It is a cost-effective option for Tennessee, since many students are Pell-eligible and can therefore use money from the federal government before the state. Colleges can also continue to charge tuition.

However, such policies can ultimately hurt students, according to Sandy Baum, senior fellow at the Urban Institute. She explains that because the state will pay tuition up front for families of students who are not Pell-eligible, "the extra money is actually going to people who need it less."

What free college can't fix

Baum favors the Obama administration's America's College Promise proposal, under which the federal government would cover 75% of tuition and fees and states would cover the rest. Baum says such a plan would allow low-income students to use Pell funding for living expenses and direct more public assistance to students who need it most. But the proposal has its own issues. Taxpayers would pay much more to fund the program, and it would have a very different impact on different state budgets, depending on the current support for two-year schools (Kamenetz, "NPRed," NPR, 8/25).  

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