mixed group of college students meeting indoors on campus

At least one-third of states now have some iteration of a “promise program” covering the cost of tuition at a community college.

Feds Take Cues From the States on Free Community College

By Sunny Deye and Andrew Smalley | May 3, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print

During his address to a joint session of Congress last Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced his proposal to make community college free.

While some of the program’s structure has yet to be detailed, Biden’s proposal would provide more than $100 billion to fund two years of community college for students. The plan, along with other federal proposals, takes its cues from bipartisan work happening in state legislatures across the country.

States Leading the Way

Over the past several years, states have been designing, implementing and expanding free college programs for thousands of students. At least one-third of states now have some iteration of a “promise program” covering the cost of tuition at a community college. Most are “last-dollar” programs that bridge the gap between other forms of financial aid, such as Pell Grants, and a student’s outstanding need. The programs typically cover multiple institutions across the state and generally have eligibility requirements linked to state residency, income or high school graduation. While these requirements can limit access for adult learners and formerly incarcerated students, they provide cost containment for states with limited budget resources.

Most state programs address only tuition and fees. However, those costs constitute just a portion of what most students spend to attend public two-year or community colleges. Additional costs include textbooks, transportation and living expenses such as food and housing. If left unmet, these costs can derail students’ progress and force them to borrow to cover expenses/make ends meet.

Although each state program is unique, most focus on recent high school graduates from low- or middle-income families seeking to attend community college. Some programs include adults or specific credentials, or both. Below are examples of several state programs and their enabling legislation:

  • In 2014, Tennessee enacted one of the first statewide promise programs through Senate Bill 2471 and House Bill 2491. This is the original statewide last-dollar program that offered tuition-free access to the state’s community colleges to all high school graduates. Tennessee’s program also includes mentoring for students and community service requirements to maintain eligibility.
  • In 2015, Oregon established Oregon Promise program through Senate Bill 81. The program targets recent high school graduates who complete high school with a 2.5 grade point average and intend to pursue a degree, credential or license at a state community college. The award covers two academic years or a maximum of 90 academic credit hours.
  • In 2017, Nevada enacted Senate Bill 391, which established the Nevada Promise Scholarship program, providing tuition, registration and other mandatory fees not covered by other financial aid at participating community colleges for a maximum of three years. Students must complete the promise program application, file a FAFSA, apply for admission to their community college of choice, meet with a mentor, and complete 20 hours of community service to be eligible. Once enrolled, students must maintain a 2.5 GPA for 12 credit hours per semester to remain in the program.
  • In 2019, Washington enacted House Bill 2158, creating the Washington College Grant program. With new revenue included in the legislation, the program guarantees financial aid to qualified students to attend college for free or at a discounted rate. Eligibility is determined by the state’s median family income, which is about $92,000 for a family of four. The maximum award amount is equal to the value of full tuition and fees at public colleges and universities and may be used for other expenses, such as books and housing. In addition to community college, the grants can serve students in registered apprenticeships and at any of the state’s private colleges and universities. The program is available to adults as well as recent high school graduates.

Works in Progress

Free community college programs continue to evolve. Washington’s example tackles many of the challenges states faced in implementing these programs – including establishing a reliable revenue source, allowing dollars to be used for nontuition costs, allowing students to attend a variety of postsecondary options, including two- and four-year programs as well as apprenticeships, expanding eligibility to adults, and eliminating eligibility barriers for students, including postgraduation residency requirements.

While we have yet to see the details of Biden’s proposal, we can look to the states to learn important lessons about program design, qualifications and implementation. Once again, the “laboratories of democracy”—the 18 states that are leading the free community college movement—have provided the road map and goalposts for federal action.

Sunny Deye is a director and Andrew Smalley is a research analyst in NCSL’s Education Program.

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