They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but the Community College of Philadelphia recently pledged to make its tuition free for qualifying Philadelphia high school graduates.
CCP’s 50th Anniversary Scholarship will cover the difference between federal aid, particularly Pell grants, and the total cost of tuition and fees for up to three years or until students complete an associate’s degree. Students must be eligible for Pell grants, which go to those whose families earn below $50,000 a year, and must meet some other academic requirements.
College President Guy Generals says the program focuses on high-achieving students — who could choose a four-year school — but who might need help paying for school. “It’s not a representative example because we’re asking that they come full time, and they test at the college level” in English composition, said Generals.
Most current CCP students do not fit this bill, according Generals. “Seventy percent of our students test below the college level” and place into remedial classes, he said.
Generals expects the program will help about 440 students next year at a total cost of $200,000. That amount will rise to around $350,000 once the program is fully enrolled.
“I think it’s a new day in community colleges,” said Generals, speaking about the need for more low-cost, high-quality college options in the age of rising four-year tuitions. “It’s not your mom and pop’s grade 13, that stereotype from 20 years ago.”
At this point, said Generals, money from the scholarship can only go toward tuition and school fees.
The costs of books and out-of-school expenses such as transportation may still pose an obstacle for high-achieving students, according to Kensington Health Sciences Academy high school guidance counselor Bob Nelson.
“They’re trying to get to get to class, and they don’t have any money in their pocket for lunch, or they can’t afford the book. That can make access to a college education very difficult,” said Nelson.
Generals acknowledged that “books can cost more than a class” and that he and other school administrators are working on cost-saving measures for these and other costs.
Any graduate from a Philadelphia high school — parochial, private or public — can access the funds. The first step is to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. From there, students who receive Pell grants but still find themselves paying tuition costs can apply to CCP directly for a scholarship.
While in school, they must meet academic standards, such as maintaining a 2.5 GPA, and must participate in extracurricular activities, such as volunteering.
Those academic restrictions — to enter and stay in the program — will limit the number of students from neighborhood public schools who can take advantage of the program.
“Throughout my experience, there has only been one student who decided to go to CCP and did not have to take remedial classes in reading and in math,” said Larry Thi, college-readiness counselor at Kensington Health Sciences Academy.
According to Generals, the “no remediation” clause in the scholars program isn’t a hard cut off. “If [students] test just below the cut score, we will give some students an opportunity to do summer remediation,” said Generals. “What this hopes to target is those who are minimally deficient in those language areas.”
Generals said on average students who qualify for the program will receive about $450 toward tuition and fees.
According to Thi and Nelson, even a small amount of money can go a long way for their students.
CCP hopes to raise a $10 million endowment to sustain the program long term. It may expand to cover more types of costs and more students, said Generals.
The Philadelphia initiative is separate from President Obama’s proposal for cost-free community college across the country.