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Free College? Why Wait for the Feds?

Community colleges are well situated to provide the skills needed to thrive in the evolving post-pandemic economy. States have the resources to provide a tuition-free path right now, but they need to do it right.

College students walking towards the entrance to a building.
Students head to class at Pima Community College in Tucson, Ariz.
(Jennifer G. Lang/Shutterstock)
For states seeking to prepare their residents for the job demands of the future, free college programs for recent high school grads and working adults offer potential to truly move the needle. Nowhere is that potential greater than in America’s often underappreciated community and technical colleges.

A tuition-free path through community college can help address dramatic changes in the labor market that COVID-19 has only accelerated. New skills are in high demand as economic energy shifts toward health care, communications and logistics and away from central cities.

President Biden’s American Families Plan proposes several ambitious educational investments, including universal high-quality pre-K and a guarantee of free community college. But it remains to be seen whether these proposals will survive negotiations with a divided Congress.

So why wait for the feds? States are newly flush with resources thanks to the unprecedented COVID-19 relief package enacted in March. This means governors have the money right now to help many of their residents get the short-term certificates and associate degrees they need for success. More good news: Such programs require only a modest draw on the federal financial windfall and can gain bipartisan support in state legislatures.

The hard part is doing it right. Many examples already exist of scholarship programs that are overly complex, too narrow and not generous enough to achieve their goals. Instead, states should incorporate three big lessons learned from 15 years of research into the many “Promise” scholarship programs that exist across the nation. And the dozen-plus states that already have free college initiatives can take this opportunity to revise and strengthen them in line with these lessons.

First, a free college program must be simple, easy to access and close to universal in reach. The Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect programs are good models; they are used widely and serve many first-generation and low-income students while enjoying bipartisan support. The Rhode Island Promise program has led to a doubling of enrollment at the state’s community colleges, with even stronger gains for students of color and sharp improvements in graduation rates. The Michigan Reconnect program for adults without degrees has also incorporated this lesson: The application process can be completed on a smartphone in just a few minutes, and application numbers have far outpaced expectations.

Second, paying for tuition is not enough. As skeptics have rightfully pointed out, the record of community colleges when it comes to degree completion is poor. Many students need help navigating the often-labyrinthine U.S. higher education system, yet community colleges are strapped for funds. In fact, per-pupil expenditures at public universities and colleges today are more than 20 percent below what they were 20 years ago. Increased public investment in this sector would almost certainly yield more degrees, especially when paired with effective and inexpensive coaching. Coaching and mentoring can and should come from the community — ideally, from individuals who have similar cultural experiences as students. Such mentorship programs, for example, are part of the Tennessee Promise and Say Yes Buffalo models.

Third, Promise initiatives need tighter integration with the labor market through pathways programs, apprenticeships and career preparation. States can begin by implementing clear policies that allow credits from any public college or university in the state to transfer to any other public college or university in the state. Seamless credit transfers increase degree attainment and can save students and families a lot of money.

Involvement from the business community can also leverage the power of tuition-free college into good jobs. This is best done locally, both because it promotes economic and community development and because many alumni already stay relatively close to their alma mater. Specifically, community colleges should partner with high-wage local employers looking for talent; these employers could offer technical input on curricula to ensure alignment with their needs.

Navigation and support resources can also help strengthen these pathways from community college into the workforce. Tools to help workers transitioning out of the service industry for something better, such as the opportunity occupations developed by the Federal Reserve Banks in Cleveland, Atlanta and Philadelphia, can be made even more salient by coaches and navigators who help students understand their options.

What would it cost? The Tennessee Promise program spends on average $1,200 per student per two-semester academic year, for a total cost of $32 million in 2019-20. Michigan appropriated $30 million for Michigan Reconnect in 2021. Our own small hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich., will itself receive more than these amounts in federal relief, and aid to states is measured in the billions. With federal funds used to seed and start these programs, their demonstrated benefits can underpin support for permanent funding, as just happened in Rhode Island.

Governors and other state policymakers have an opportunity they rarely see: the chance (and the money) to truly influence the economic future of their states. A well-structured free college program is one of the best ways to do it.

Michelle Miller-Adams is a senior researcher at the W.E. Upjohn Institute and a professor at Grand Valley State University. Brad Hershbein is a senior economist and communications adviser at the W.E. Upjohn Institute.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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