November 29, 2023

In 2021, Vermont launched a new free college program, the 802 Opportunity grant. The program offered free tuition at the Community College of Vermont to students from families with an annual household income of less than $50,000.

In the first year, 2,000 students used the scholarship to pay for college. This figure increased by 10% in the following year. Most of them were the first in their families to go to college.

In other words, the program was a success, said Joyce Judy, president of CCV. Vermont, she said, has a good high school graduation rate but a low college graduation rate. The latter aren’t helped by high community college tuition — CCV charges in-state students $280 per credit.

Even lawmakers seem to think the initiative is going well. Last year, they voted to expand eligibility for the scholarship, which now covers those with incomes up to $75,000, or half of all Vermonters, Judy said.

“We have so many Vermont companies that are in desperate need of highly skilled workers, and we want to make sure that Vermonters get those jobs,” said Judy. “Since COVID came along, there’s been a recognition that if we want to help all Vermonters function to their full potential, we really have to figure out how to make that available to them.”

It’s a trend that’s happening across the country. After the defeat of President Joe Biden’s statewide free community schools plan a year ago, some momentum for the idea moved to the state level. Now, more states are launching their own programs, and those that launched last year are looking at potential expansion.

Movement with momentum

Take the Michigan Reconnect program. Founded in 2021 by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Reconnect offers free community tuition for adults 25 and older without college degrees. Now, Whitmer said she would like to lower the eligibility age to 21.

“It has opened doors of opportunity for so many working-age adults, and we’re even more excited to see it expand,” said Brandy Johnson, president of the Michigan Community College Association. “We’ve seen more adult students enrolling in our institutions, and we think the ‘tuition-free pathway’ tagline has helped adults understand that these programs are where they belong.”

Connecticut already has a free college program called Pledge to Advance Connecticut, or PACT, which applies to first-time community college students who earn at least six credits. But the president of the state college and university system proposed its extension to all community college students.

In states that do not have comprehensive free college programs, governors have said they are interested. In Massachusetts, newly inaugurated Governor Maura Healey has been toying with the idea of ​​MassReconnect, an initiative mirroring Michigan and Tennessee’s programs for community college adults. Other Massachusetts legislators designed their own plans for the free program.

“We are having many conversations about what we would like for a free community college in Massachusetts and the things that would need to be accomplished to make it sustainable for our schools and our students,” said Sarah Yunits, deputy executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges .

In Illinois, Governor JB Pritzker called for free higher education for some families in his recent State of the State address, though he did not propose any formal plans.

Federal officials have emphasized the expansion and growth of free programs at the state level. Nasser Paydar, who serves as Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education, called on states to work on a tuition-free community college at a recent conference.

Strong word: free

Despite growth in recent years, free college programs have been part of the educational landscape in some form for a while, beginning with merit-based programs in the 1990s, said Michelle Miller-Adams, senior research fellow at the WE Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

Local free college programs established in cities followed in the mid-2000s, with the first statewide program then launched in Tennessee in 2014.

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