As policymakers and education experts debate what to do about the ever-rising cost of tuition, fees, room, and board, several states are trying a radical solution: free college.
Tennessee, California, Oregon, Rhode Island and New York have all launched programs that offer some form of free tuition, whether at community colleges or public four-year institutions. Now, as the first data begins to come out of these programs, what do the results suggest?
Students have a better chance of continuing their education.
Tennessee Promise, launched in 2015, provides two years of tuition-free attendance at an in-state community or technical college. Each participant has mandatory meetings with a mentor who helps them navigate the college admission process. Tennessee Promise participants also must enroll full time; complete eight hours of community service per term; and maintain at least a 2.0 GPA.
Data released in September 2017 showed that the first cohort of Tennessee Promise students, those who entered college in 2015, are more likely to persevere in their education than their peers. Two years after they began, 56 percent had graduated, transferred to a four-year university or remained in school — compared to 39 percent of high school graduates not involved in the program. Drop-out rates remain high, however: 44 percent of the first Tennessee Promise class had dropped out of college without a degree by 2017.
Student retention may improve.
In 2014, the city of Chicago launched its own free community college experiment. The STAR Scholarship program rewards students who graduate from public schools with at least a 3.0 GPA and receive completion-ready ACT/SAT scores in math and English can receive free tuition and books at City Colleges of Chicago. (Students must first apply for financial aid so that any available money can be applied to tuition as well.) Those who graduate with an associate’s degree then receive discounted tuition at 20 partner institutions, meaning they can earn a four-year degree for the cost of 1.5 years of college.
“The early results of this initiative have been incredibly encouraging,” writes Juan Salgado, chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago. Of the 890 Star Scholars who started in the fall of 2015, two-thirds have either graduated or are currently enrolled and on track to complete their degree within three years. The first-year retention rate of Star Scholars is 85 percent, which is nearly twice the national average for community college students.
More undocumented students may enroll in college.
The STAR Scholarship program’s success has had an unexpected effect: “Chicago’s junior colleges have become an extraordinarily popular spot for high-achieving but cash-strapped undocumented immigrants to study,” USA Today reports. Because STAR, like many free college tuition programs, is a so-called “last dollar” program, applicants must first fill out the FAFSA. Financial aid and grants are applied to the tuition bill before the program pays the rest. But more than a fifth of applicants were ineligible for federal aid, most likely because they are undocumented. Chicago deliberately chose not to require citizenship or proof of legal residence for scholarship recipients, but elsewhere in the U.S., such an open policy is rare. Just six states allow undocumented students to receive state financial aid; two (Alabama and South Carolina) specifically prohibit undocumented students from enrolling in any public college or university.
There may be more competition among private colleges and universities.
Launched in 2017, New York State’s Excelsior Scholarship will allow more than 940,000 students from middle-class families to attend college tuition-free at CUNY and SUNY two- and four-year colleges. About 75,000 students applied for the fall of 2017.
The state’s private institutions are concerned they’ll see a corresponding enrollment decline as the fledgling program expands. Many of these schools are already struggling to enroll enough students because of a declining number of high school graduates. A report produced by a state commission estimates that enrollment in the state’s private nonprofit colleges and universities may fall by 7 percent to 15 percent with the free-tuition plan, resulting in a loss of $1.4 billion in revenue. New York State does offer the Enhanced Tuition Award Program, a scholarship plan that gives students up to $6,000 toward tuition at in-state private colleges, but its efficacy isn’t yet clear.
Full-time enrollment rates may increase.
While it’s too early to measure the full impact of the Excelsior program, it appears to already be having an effect on full-time enrollment (a condition of the scholarship). Full-time enrollment at LaGuardia Community College, part of CUNY, increased by 5.2 percent from fall 2016 to fall 2017, rising from 12,641 to 13,298. “New York’s focus on offering free tuition to full-time students only highlights a national trend to encourage and incentivize students to pursue more than 12 credits a semester, because research has indicated that full-time status is a great indicator of graduation,” Inside Higher Ed reports.