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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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