2-Pane Combined
Full Summaries Sorted

Is Free Tuition Working?

A challenge for states and community colleges, free tuition is a complicated but necessary progression of education in America. With many programs already in place, we ask,

Is Free Tuition Working?
























By Carol Patton

Last fall, Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis began par- ticipating in the Tennessee Promise, a last dollar scholarship—a need-based award for students whose expected family contribution and financial aid package total less than the cost to attend college—and mentoring program for local students attending public community colleges in the state.

The college attracted 927 Tennessee Promise students, representing nearly 10 percent of the school’s 9,135 enrollment that semester, according to Jacqueline Faulkner, the school’s vice president of student affairs.

“We also had an increase in our freshman cohorts that we largely attribute to the additional assistance from the Tennessee Promise,” she said, noting that 37.9 percent of full-time freshmen were Tennessee Promise students.

So far, 13 states have introduced legislation for students attending community colleges. While many are applauding states for developing programs designed to improve student access to community colleges, all eyes are on Tennessee and Oregon to assess program outcomes and challenges. Reactions are mixed. While enrollment figures are rising, some believe such programs can’t be sustained or that the focus should shift from helping students to institutions.

Faulkner says the structured program helps her college provide students with wrap-around services—including mentoring from college staff or community volunteers. Nearly 80 percent of Tennessee Promise students who enrolled in the fall returned in the spring.

But nothing is perfect.

“I would certainly want to work in deeper tandem with high school counselors and community partners to ensure that all of the (program) information is filtered out to students,” said Faulkner. “I would like to see communication flowing where we encourage all students to take advantage of this great opportunity.”

Signing up for the program is mandatory at Millington Central High School in western Tennessee. Every high school senior automatically applies for the Tennessee Promise, said Georgette Farmer, a college and career counselor at the school.

“I promote it as a free scholarship, free money, and a great backup plan,” Farmer said, adding that students can apply to a technical school or four-year college. “I recommend they get two years of college out of the way for free rather than rack up debt.”

Of the 200 students who signed up during the 2014–15 academic
year, Farmer said 125 completed the five mandatory tasks required by the scholarship—signing up, filing federal financial aid forms, attending two meetings, and performing eight hours of community service before August. Out of the 125, 75 students attended a community college, while the remainder attended a four-year college or joined the military.

This academic year, 111 out of the school’s 228 seniors followed through on the five tasks, Farmer said. Of those students, roughly 50 will attend a community college or technical school.

Typically, mentors meet their assigned students in March, after four of
the mandatory student tasks have been accomplished. However, Farmer suggested they meet in November, at the program’s first meeting, so mentors can encourage students to complete the remaining responsibilities on time.


SUMMER 2016 31

After launching the Oregon Promise last year, leaders in that state extended the timeline by allowing students who graduated anytime during the current school year to enroll in the scholarship program, said Bob Brew, director of Oregon’s Office of Student Access and Completion, the state’s FAFSA processor.

His staff’s challenges include calculating student aid from three different funding sources—federal grants and loans, the Oregon Opportunity Grant (OOG), and Oregon Promise.

Brew explained that the Oregon Promise has been funded for $10 million by general tax revenues for one year. “But this next fiscal year will be pretty tight in terms of budget dollars,” he said.

He estimates that 7,000 students apply for loans or grants each year. But this year, that number skyrocketed.

“The question in everybody’s mind (revolves around the fact that) we had 20,000 students fill out the (Oregon Promise) application,” Brew said. “We don’t know if our (participation rate) is going to be higher or lower. If they all show up in the fall, we would probably pay their fall and winter tuition, but would probably have to go back to the legislature to look for more money for the third term.”

As the director of enrollment services and registrar at Linn-Benton Community College in Albany, Oregon, Danny Aynes said enrollment at his school jumped from 1,105 students last year to 1,558 students this year.


Thirteen states have introduced legislation supporting last dollar scholarship programs for community college students. Here are some key differences involving eligibility and program components:

  • Arizona: Maintain a 2.5 GPA.

  • Hawaii: Live in counties with less than 100,000 residents; recipients

    receive at least $1,000 in aid.

  • Illinois: Enroll in at least 12 credit hours.

  • Maryland: Offers a 50 percent community college discount to

    residents with no high school diploma or GED, who have been seeking employment but have been unemployed for at least six months; creates a nonrefundable tax credit for community college tuition and fees; establishes a task force to study the program; supports a community college vocational certificate tuition waiver program.

  • Massachusetts: Prohibits charging tuition or curriculum fees to state residents attending community colleges.

  • Minnesota: Earn an adjusted gross income of less than $90,000; enroll within two years of graduating high school or passing an equivalency test; complete a minimum of 30 hours and maintain a 2.5 GPA each academic year; participate in a mentoring program.

  • Mississippi: Establishes the Mississippi Works Scholarship Program that covers tuition for students enrolled in certain career and technical education programs during the 2016–17 and 2017–18 academic years.




• New York: Enroll at least half time, pay $50 for courses, and receive at least $1,000 in Promise aid; create a reimbursement program for tuition expenses paid out-of-pocket not covered by financial aid; recipients must complete at least 25 hours of community service and sign a contract agreeing to live and work full-time in New York for five years after earning their degree.

• Oklahoma: Enroll full-time, pay a $50 fee, and maintain a 2.0 GPA; participate in mandatory mentoring and community service.

• Oregon: Enroll at a community college within six months of graduating high school or obtaining a GED; complete high school with at least a 2.5 GPA; receive a minimum $1,000 grant; pay $50 per term to enroll in courses.

• Tennessee: Maintain a 2.0 GPA; enroll full time; attend a college ori- entation meeting; participate in mentoring sessions; complete at least eight hours of community service per semester.

• Washington: Enroll full- or part-time; stipends of up to $1,500 for books and related expenses are available to students whose families earn less than 70 percent of the state median income.

• Wisconsin: Sign an agreement to maintain a 3.0 GPA; be continuously employed in the state for at least three years after graduation.

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures





“It’s very hard to deal with this and try to manage capacity in classes,” Aynes said, crediting the increase to the Oregon Promise. “It’s hard to add courses (and teachers) on the fly when we get to August.”

While he believes free tuition in some form is inevitable, he said it must be paired with a college reform model like guided pathways, which offers students a structured roadmap for obtaining a degree.

Meanwhile, many are cautiously optimistic about the Oregon Promise, adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

“Starting college is half a fix,” Aynes said.

The other half? Helping students select an appropriate major based on their interests and talents, requiring the completion of only relevant courses, and building a mentoring structure for the college.

“Guided pathways combined with the Oregon Promise, we think, will increase the education level of our state,” Aynes said.


While President Barack Obama proposed the America’s College Promise, which would make two years of community college free through a federal- state partnership, there’s no guarantee his successor will support it. Many question where the funding will come from.

“Consider that roughly 60 percent of students already attend City University of New York (CUNY) basically for free,” said Richard Alvarez, vice president for enrollment and student retention at Queens College of CUNY.

“The challenge with this free college concept is it’s an unfunded mandate from the federal government.”

States will be forced to defund other state programs or initiatives to pay the bulk of tuition costs, he said.

“We’re focusing on only one element as to why students are not successful, attributing it only to the cost of college,” he said.

Alvarez believes it’s not tuition costs holding students back from accessing higher education. Other components must be revamped to make education more relevant and practical for students, he said.

One promising initiative is the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs within CUNY, which includes career counseling, tutoring, and mandatory advising for community college students. Since the program was implemented, Alvarez said graduation rates have soared—going from the teens to 55 percent over the past three years.

He believes community colleges need to rethink how they do business.

“Our annual operating budget includes tuition revenue,” Alvarez said, explaining that although tuition may be $4,000 a year, educating a student generally costs the college twice that amount when factoring in support services. “That’s the challenge. It’s not about funding for tuition, (but) funding the institution.”

Carol Patton is an award-winning journalist in Las Vegas who covers education and other topics for many publications and websites.

Photo courtesy Parkland College (IL), by Bradley Leeb





SUMMER 2016 33

Copyright of Journal of College Admission is the property of National Association of College Admission Counseling and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.

DMU Timestamp: February 03, 2020 23:30

0 comments, 0 areas
add area
add comment
change display
add comment

Quickstart: Commenting and Sharing

How to Comment
  • Click icons on the left to see existing comments.
  • Desktop/Laptop: double-click any text, highlight a section of an image, or add a comment while a video is playing to start a new conversation.
    Tablet/Phone: single click then click on the "Start One" link (look right or below).
  • Click "Reply" on a comment to join the conversation.
How to Share Documents
  1. "Upload" a new document.
  2. "Invite" others to it.

Logging in, please wait... Blue_on_grey_spinner