Programs in Chicago and Tennessee have been beneficial for the community colleges and students.
During the 2016 presidential primaries, candidate Senator Bernie Sanders proposed an ambitious plan to make state colleges and universities tuition-free. On the campaign trail, the Democrat from Vermont spoke about how increased access to higher education would improve the nation’s workforce.
The idea didn’t gain much political support (though it was very popular amongst his supporters). The consensus seemed to be that free college tuition was a good idea, but the chance of actually getting it funded would be next to impossible.
Meanwhile, in one deep red state and one bright blue city, a similar initiative wasn’t just being thrown around as a political football. It was happening. Both Tennessee and Chicago provide two years of community college for residents who meet certain qualifications — tuition free.
Chicago’s star-studded scholarship program
In Chicago, any public high school student graduating with a 3.0 GPA can attend City Colleges of Chicago for two years without paying a dime. The Star Scholarship covers whatever costs remain after a student has applied for grants and financial aid, including the cost of fees and books.
“Ultimately, what we’re trying to do in Chicago is [say] 12th grade is no longer the end point of our public responsibility,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel at an event at the Brookings Institution last week. “Everyone is going to go to a minimum of 14th grade.”
Students who maintain that B average through two years of community college can also earn tuition reimbursement from Chicago’s four-year institutions, up to 50 percent off. CCC has transfer agreements with many of those schools to make the process easier.
The Star Scholarship, which started in 2014, has a $2 million annual budget funded by the community college system itself. CCC is using some of the estimated $10 million in savings from a recent system consolidation to pay for the program.
One reason this program is feasible for Chicago is it’s entry requirements: a 3.0 GPA and no remedial classes required in math or English. That means more qualified students will be entering the community colleges, and it shrinks the pool of Star applicants the college system will have to fund.
Tennessee promises all-inclusive community colleges
That’s different than what you see in Tennessee, where Republican Governor Bill Haslam has created a free community college program for all. Tennessee Promise, launched in 2014, closes the gap between financial aid and the cost of college, and offers a mentorship program for enrolled students.
Students are required to maintain a 2.0 GPA, enroll full-time, complete eight hours of community service per semester and participate fully in the mentorship program. Through this program they learn how to access resources on campus, connect with faculty and staff and get answers to questions about college life.
In 2015, there were 16,000 students enrolled through the Promise program. For context, Tennessee graduates about 63,000 high school seniors each year. Promise students have an 81 percent retention rate — much higher than the 39 percent for community colleges nationally — credited to the mentorship program.
This ambitious program is funded entirely through the lottery.
Not a flawless plan
As great as it sounds, offering free community college isn’t without its detractors.
Some say that Chicago’s 3.0 GPA requirement makes it a merit aid program, unlikely to benefit the neediest in the city. It’s been compared to Georgia’s HOPE scholarship, which has similar requirements and has ended up sending a lot of well-off students to state schools for free. (Often driving so-called “HOPEmobiles,” cars purchased with the money that would have gone towards college tuition.)
Also, these “last-dollar” programs cover costs beyond federal financial aid. But a lot of that financial aid is income dependent, measured on a sliding scale. Nationally, 85 percent of low-income Pell recipients received enough funding to pay for tuition and fees at community colleges, and thus, wouldn’t benefit from a funding program that provides that last dollar.
What they would benefit from would be funding for living expenses, childcare or transportation. Instead, these programs funnel funds to families who earn too much to qualify for federal financial aid.
The Pennsylvania Promise?
Even with these glaring issues, there’s support for free community college. It’s something President Obama has proposed on a federal level, and similar programs are being proposed and passed in other states.
But don’t think Pennsylvania will be next. There are bigger issues with Pennsylvania’s community college program than how to fund it for free — like, how to fund it at all.
Community colleges in Pennsylvania are supposed to receive one-third of their funds from the state, one-third from a local partner and one-third from tuition. Since the financial crisis in 2008, all community colleges have seen their state funding slashed and many have lost contributions from the local partner as well.
Right now, restoring state funding “is really the top priority for community colleges. It’s been an issue of the financial pressures of the state budget, but restoring the operating and capital appropriations from the state has been and remains our top priority,” said Danielle Gross, director of public affairs at the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges.
Going further than that on a state level is nothing more than a pipe-dream in Pennsylvania for now. But there have been some local initiatives, like the Allentown School District Promise, which financially supports Allentown high school graduates who want to attend Lehigh-Carbon Community College, and the Pittsburgh Promise, which gives public school graduates who meet certain requirements funds to attend college in Pennsylvania.
“We’ve seen a lot of our community colleges and their communities step up to fill that need,” said Gross. “It’s a little bit of an easier lift,” to work on the local level, she said, than to wait for the state to find “not insignificant funding” to make these programs universally free.