Free Community College Gets Financial Aid From White House

Congress rejected the president's proposal for tuition-free community college, so his administration is instead helping regions launch the program themselves.
by | April 25, 2016
President Barack Obama speaks after being introduced by Vice President Joe Biden, left, after arriving at the Community College of Allegheny County-West Hills Center in Oakdale, Pa. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

In his State of the Union address last year, President Obama called for free tuition for community college students nationwide. The idea has gone nowhere in Congress. But free tuition plans have since sprung up in about two dozen states and localities -- and some of them will soon get their own financial aid package.

On Monday, Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to announce that the Obama administration will offer a total of $100 million in grants for free community college programs. The money will go to regional partnerships between colleges, employers and nonprofits that create such programs where student aid and workforce development are closely linked. The White House has already convened meetings in nine states.

Obama's rejected free tuition proposal was inspired by initiatives in Tennessee and Chicago. Months after his presidential push, Oregon became the second state to adopt a similar approach and has since signed up more than 12,000 students to attend community college tuition-free this fall.

That puts a good-sized dent in the population of 70,000 Oregonians between the ages of 16 and 24 years old who are neither working nor in school, said state Sen. Mark Hass, who sponsored the free tuition bill.

"These kids don't necessarily need to go to Stanford," he said. "But they need some training to become a welder or a medical assistant."

Even where higher education spending is being cut, free community college is being made a priority. In Kentucky, for example, the state budget -- which Gov. Matt Bevin has until Wednesday to sign or veto -- slices higher education spending by 4.5 percent but sets aside $25 million to create a free tuition plan for qualified students.

Like most of the new programs, Kentucky will offer students "last dollar" assistance. That means they're expected to apply for federal Pell grants and other financial aid, but will also receive any additional help they need to bring their tuition bills down to zero.

"We just think it's one of the best investments we can make in our students and our future workforce here in Kentucky," said state Rep. Tommy Thompson. "When you talk to many managers at manufacturing facilities in Kentucky, they universally speak of the shortage of skilled workers."

The goal of many of these programs is not only to expand access for students but also to ensure that they attain skills that are useful to employers in their area. That was made clear in Minnesota.

Legislators in the state started off with the goal of offering two years of community college free to all students, creating in essence a K-14 system. But the version that ended up passing last year created a pilot program limited to recent high school graduates who come from households with incomes below $90,000 and have to pick from a list of specific occupational degree or certification programs.

"It's really to get recent high school grads into college right away in a vocational program and hopefully into the job market in a high-demand field," said Ginny Dodds of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

As with other financial aid programs, the biggest criticism aimed at free tuition is that it will subsidize students who would be going to college anyway. Even Hillary Clinton, who supports the idea of free community college, has mocked her Democratic presidential rival Bernie Sanders' free, four-year tuition plan.

"I don't think taxpayers should be paying to send Donald Trump’s kids to college," Clinton said during a debate last year.

But administrators at colleges that have started their own free tuition programs say they're appealing to an entirely different breed of student. In Milwaukee, for example, most people who enroll at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) are in their 30s. But last fall, 3,000 current high school students applied for a free tuition program designed specifically to attract them. Those who completed their financial aid requests now have until May 1 to score at least 16 (out of 36) on the ACT college admissions test.

As is generally the case with other programs across the country, students in the MATC program have to attend school full-time and maintain a passing grade point average. They also have to perform community service work and take advantage of mentoring and tutoring programs.

Superintendents in the Chicago area say attendance has already improved among freshman students who hope to qualify for free tuition at Harper College in Palatine.

"We aren't asking them to be 4.0 students, but we are asking them to complete their work and meet certain standards," said Michelé Smith, Harper's assistant provost.

Among the 7,000 freshman in the three high school districts that feed into Harper, 4,600 have signed up. If they keep their grades up, don't miss too many days of school, perform community service hours and are ready to start college without remediation, they can look forward to a free ride in the fall of 2019.

That's important not just for those students but the future of their communities. Colleges like Harper and MATC mostly serve low-income students, many of whom are the first in their families to receive any sort of higher education.

"We want to create a college-going attitude in our community," said Smith.