Growing list of states offer free community college
Reacting to soaring college costs and state education cuts, more than 12 states and 200 localities are providing some form of tuition-free community college education with hopes that the return on investment will boost their area economies, reports the Sauk Valley online newspaper.
The economic benefits are not straightforward. In Kalamazoo, MI, where free community college and technical school tuition has been available since 2005, the area saw an end to population erosion. But Tim Ready, a sociology professor at Western Michigan University, said free tuition has been “marginally beneficial but not a slam dunk”. He noted that between 2005 and 2014, the city’s public school enrollment grew by almost 25 percent, though the number of low-income kids receiving free lunches also increased.
Funding free community college is a challenge for some states and localities, and a number now are implementing restrictions, such as income levels and programs of study requirements.
Growing support of free community college underscores how the issue of higher education crosses partisan political lines. With more states like California and Texas considering free community college initiatives, state leaders are displaying an understanding that access to higher education is an important quality of life and economic issue. Even four-year institutions, which were initially concerned about how free community college would impact their bottom lines, are supporting access to community college could bolster their completion rates and future funding requests.
But free community college comes with a hefty price tag. For example, Oregon Promise, established by the state legislature in 2015, scrambled after its first year, 2016-17, when lawmakers appropriated less than needed to continue the program in its original form. Demand had risen more than expected.
The Oregon legislature increased funding from $10 million to $40 million in its next two-year budget, but that was still $8 million short of the funds needed. To compensate, the state set stricter income eligibility limits for new students (current students were grandfathered in).