Free community college

September 20, 2016
  • AACRAO Connect
  • Financial Aid and FAFSA
  • Technology and Transfer
  • Transfer and Articulation

by Michele Sandlin, Managing Consultant, AACRAO Consulting

Free Community College initiatives have been steadily gaining media attention in the U.S. since President Obama advocated for free community college in 2015.  President Obama cited at the time the first statewide program called the “Tennessee Promise” instituted in 2014 by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. The Tennessee Promise initiative stipulates to receive free tuition at a Tennessee community college a graduating high school senior must:

  • Graduate from a TN high school
  • Attend orientation
  • Participate in a summer bridge program
  • Register for classes and buy books

Expanding free tuition opportunities were prominent with the democratic party in this year’s Presidential primaries and are a focus within the general election for the democratic nominee that includes a plan and funding details. 

At this year's 2016 AACRAO Annual meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, staff from Volunteer State Community College in Tennessee, the college is part of the Tennessee Promise initiative, presented an update session on “The Cost of Free Community College”.  This session conducted by George Pimentel, Vice President of Academic Affairs, Emily Short, Asst. Vice President of Student Services & Enrollment Management, and Tim Amyx, Director of Admissions & College Registrar provided a summary of what happened and lessons learned at Volunteer State this first year implementing the Tennessee Promise. 

Results from Volunteer State for this first year were:

  • Massive increase in prospects
  • Increase in recruitment activities
  • Shift in applicant timing 
  • Increase in yield

In summary Volunteer State reported lessons learning and need for more proactive campus wide planning and training:

  • College-going culture can change once tuition is removed from consideration.
  • Academics must adapt to meet the increased demand.
  • Adequate support systems must be in place to help ensure student success.

From TN to OR

Oregon is the second state to move forward with a free community college program beginning fall 2016.  It is anticipated to bring an increase between 4,000 to 6,000 additional enrollments for Oregon’s Community Colleges this fall.  Several colleges reporting funding issues and concerns about the program requirement of a minimum grade point average (GPA) of 2.50 in high school in order to be eligible for the Oregon Promise program.   This is contrary to the open enrollment admission at the community colleges and some colleges are dealing with the early fallout from students applying based on the opportunity to attend tuition free, being admitted to the college, but being denied the free tuition program.   Many of these students would not have applied or thought of going to college due to the cost. 

Both Oregon and Tennessee are last-dollar policy states.  This means “qualified students who fill out the FAFSA can benefit from the program only after they’ve used existing federal and state aid.”  Oregon’s program also provides up to $1,000 stipends ($500 for part-time) to offset costs of books and transportation. It is anticipated that by spring 2017 Oregon will be able to report on inquiry, application and enrollment increases, funding issues, any revisions to the GPA requirement, and lessons learned during implementation. 

In this Presidential election, the “New College Compact” proposed by Hillary Clinton is a very detailed plan that would allow students to attend an in-state public university without having to take out loans for tuition, non-profit colleges would also be included.  This plan will be funded in part by closing undisclosed tax loopholes on the wealthy.  The plan also includes debt relief, ability to refinance at lower rates, income based repayment options capped at 10% of income, cap of 20 years’ maximum repayment period, a work requirement, and would expand the higher education tax credit.