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.
“Whenever federal leadership goes away, you’re going to see continued activity at the state and local level around tuition-free school, and that’s been happening for almost 20 years,” Miller-Adams said. “The spotlight is shifting.
Although they may move in tandem, different state governments often provide different rationales for supporting free college. The rhetoric could focus on affordability and debt relief – as it has a widely covered proposal by Senator Bernie Sanders. But it can also focus on equity in terms of who goes to college or workforce development, Miller-Adams said.
Although free community college draws largely bipartisan support, lawmakers may have different reasons for supporting the proposal depending on the state, said Ryan Morgan, CEO of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, an advocacy group. For example, some southern states need skilled workers to fill manufacturing jobs and will focus on workforce development.
“I’d like to see design options that match the goals.”
Senior Research Fellow, WE Upjohn Institute for Employment Research
Lawmakers may be encouraged by some of the research behind free college programs. Doug Harris, Chair of Economics at Tulane University studied at a free college. Harris said his research shows that such programs largely undergo cost-benefit analysis.
Although they also generally increase the number of students in college, what that looks like can depend on the situation, Harris said. In some cases, the tuition-free program for two-year colleges could shift enrollment from four-year institutions.
The Tennessee Promise program, which began in 2014, increased enrollment only in the short term, Miller-Adams said.
More recently, New Mexico last year launched the nation’s largest tuition-free college program, covering community colleges and state four-year universities. The state saw public college enrollment 4% growth over last fall.
In Maine, the state government offered free tuition at community colleges for students whose high school conditions were affected by the pandemic. Andrew Morong, associate dean for enrollment management at Central Maine Community College, said enrollment is up more than 12% from fall 2021, although the college has done other things to increase its staff, such as adding new sports teams and transfer agreements.
“The word ‘free’ is so powerful,” Morong said.
“A lot of students who ended up qualifying for the Pell Grant and the Maine State Grant would have come to Central Maine Community College for free anyway, they just didn’t know it yet,” Morong said. “It attracted a lot of people. who perhaps didn’t realize it was going to be free for them anyway and created a lot of aspirations for them.’
“It attracted a lot of people who maybe didn’t realize it was going to be free for them anyway.”
Associate Dean, Enrollment Management, Central Maine Community College
Almost all programs at the state level, with the exception of New Mexico’s, are last-dollar scholarships, meaning they start only after federal Pell Grants and other aid have been exhausted. Miller-Adams said she would like to see more “first dollar” programs so that students who are already eligible for Pell Grants can use federal funds to cover their other needs, such as educational needs and costs, while in college. housing. She would also like to see more intentional programming.
“I would like to see a design choice that matches the goals,” she said. “Because they are political animals, they tend to adjust themselves politically in ways that are not always good examples of program design.”
For example, Maryland’s free community college initiative has a high school GPA requirement of 2.3. The choice of that number appears to be largely arbitrary, Miller-Adams said. New York’s program for two-year and four-year colleges includes a strict postgraduate residency requirement.
Some current programs have been billed as time-limited, such as Maine’s, often because they were tied to one-time federal funds in the wake of the pandemic. However, state lawmakers appear to have some appetite to expand or expand these programs. Maine’s was originally slated to end with the high school class of 2023, but the governor’s executive budget proposed extending funding for the classes of 2024 and 2025, Morong said.
According to Ryan of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, the programs’ growth proves they are achieving their goals. Nine years ago, there were fewer than a handful of statewide programs, he said. Now there are 31 of them.
“That fact tells me it’s working,” Ryan said.