Taking a page from the state of Tennessee, a growing number of states are beginning to or are gearing up to offer free higher education at local community colleges after seeing Tennessee’s success with its own tuition-free community college system.
In April, New York state became the first in the country to announce plans to provide free tuition to students of every two-year and four-year higher education institution. According to a report in the New York Times, Arkansas and Kentucky are developing their own programs. Meanwhile the state of Rhode Island already proposed one to lawmakers. These states are making moves to offer tuition free college after seeing the successes in Tennessee which has had a program on the books for a couple of years now.
Tennessee graduated its first cohort of students who received free tuition to community college this spring, and since launching the program, Tennessee has seen enrollment in community colleges jump by a third according to a report from Penn GSE. At the same time, some of Tennessee’s four-year state schools have experienced a drop in enrollment as students rely on free community college to get two years of schooling under their belt before completing their bachelor’s degree at a four-year college or university. “We’re very encouraged by the early results,” said Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee to the New York Times.
The growing number of states offering or planning to provide free tuition comes at a time when the nation owes $1.4 trillion in student loans and based on recent LendEDU data, the average borrower has to pay back around $28,000. That is only expected to get worse as the cost of a college degree continues to rise. The state of Tennessee has an average student loan debt of $26,218 per graduate, below the national average.
Tennessee’s program “Drive to 55” was unveiled in 2013 and was aimed at increasing the number of residents of the state that earn a college degree or certificate to 55 percent by 2025. That stood at 32 percent at the time the program was announced. The efforts also included the state’s Promise program which provides money to fill any gaps between student aid, tuition, and mandatory fees. Similar to what New York is doing, Tennessee provides the money after all the aid is calculated. Most Promise programs do the opposite, providing an upfront scholarship.
Tennessee’s program has been successful largely because it promoted Promise as free tuition which won over the community and school officials. The efforts helped contribute to nearly every county in the state running workshops to teach would-be students how to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA). The state also recruited thousands of volunteers to help potential students. Thanks to all its efforts for the last two years, the state has led the nation in FASFA application volume with a seventy percent of high school student completion rate.
At the same time, the number of people applying for federal loans in Tennessee declined 17 percent in 2015, and freshman enrollment in community colleges and technical schools jumped 30 percent. Promise recipients who began community college in the fall of 2015 remain in school which compares to fewer than half who were not part of the program.
Author: Donna Fuscaldo
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