Tuition-free community college

Ground-breaking experiments in affordability at the state level

EAB's quick take

The 2016 election saw the defeat of Hillary Clinton’s “New College Compact” for tuition-free college and the election of Donald Trump, a candidate opposed to federal action on free tuition.

But despite the improbability of federal support and the failure of Obama’s “America’s College Promise”, states and communities have independently taken up the mantle of expanding community college access. Tennessee, Oregon, and Minnesota have enacted the largest tuition-free community college programs to date and Kentucky’s "Work-Ready Scholarship Program” should premier in the 2017 academic year.

The number of tuition-free programs is only expected to increase as dozens of other states debate similar proposals; institutions should monitor these debates and understand the plans’ implications for enrollment and finance.

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Three pioneer states implement their vision of tuition-free community college

All three states enacted "last-dollar" scholarships in which grants cover only the tuition that federal and state aid would otherwise fail to cover. This means that all students must complete the FAFSA to be eligible. The plans also limit eligibility to the most recent class of high school graduates.

Tuition-free college plans by state

Tennessee Promise shows dramatic results

The Tennessee Promise significantly adds to the financial aid available to Tennessee students, however proponents note that a significant element of its impact is the awareness it draws to existing financial resources. An estimated 2.3 million Pell-eligible students do not fill out the FAFSA each year. The new assurance that tuition will be completely free increases applications to existing aid and college attendance.

Tennessee Promise shows dramatic results

Some concerns and questions remain

1. Free community college will transform enrollment patterns at four-year institutions
The ability to attend a community college tuition-free for two years is likely to attract significant numbers of students, both those who would otherwise not have pursued higher education and those that would have completed their first two years at a four-year institution.

Public and private four-year institutions may see enrollment losses or feel pressure to maintain unsustainably high discount rates. Four-year institutions should focus on building strong articulation agreements with local community colleges and/or increase their out-of-state recruitment to compensate. In Tennessee some private institutions have increased their own associate degree offerings to appeal to Tennessee Promise students.

Public affordability could decrease student choice

2. Low-income students still at disadvantage with some—not all—costs covered
Middle-class students are the most likely beneficiaries of tuition-free plans. While these programs theoretically expand access to low-income and first-generation college students, they will not cover all costs. Only Oregon's plan allows funds to be allocated to non-tuition costs.

Burdens remain for low-income students

3. Gains in student persistence expected
Proposals for tuition-free college aim to increase the number of students who persist and graduate from college. Heavy debt loads frequently lead students to drop out, and policymakers hope that with students able to focus on their studies instead of finances, academic outcomes will improve.

Finances strongly affect persistence and completion

4. More students stretch campus resources
If more students enter and persist under tuition-free plans, institutions’ capacity could be strained. Although two-year institutions generally have excess capacity, most institutions would need to increase efficiency or make new investments to accommodate larger populations. The former could reduce the quality of student experiences, while the latter could raise costs. Cost reduction measures, like the expansion of online education, would take on heightened importance.

All plans also require students to maintain academic success to renew the scholarship, which increases the demand on academic advising staff.

Effects of tuition-free proposals on resource allocation

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Further reading

Minnesota Office of Higher Education, "MnSCU Two-Year Occupational Grant Pilot Program."

Oregon, "Fact Sheet: The Oregon Promise," July 9, 2015.


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