By Andra Armstrong
The 2016 presidential election thrust college affordability into the national public agenda. Then candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders each proposed free college policies, drawing inspiration from President Barack Obama’s 2015 ‘free community college’ initiative and Congressman Scott (D-VA-3) and Senator Baldwin’s (D-WI) attempted federal legislation, the America’s College Promise Act of 2015.
What isn’t as well known, though, is that through College Promise initiatives across the country, free community college is already happening in states and communities.
Bipartisan collaboration and competition has stimulated the dramatic growth of College Promise programs. Republican and Democratic lawmakers are working with regional leaders to identify creative solutions to support students and reduce college costs. Why? They know from the research and policy literature that a high school education will not be sufficient for Americans in the 21st Century. They believe that scholarships can be leveraged to increase not only access to and enrollment in our nation’s community colleges and universities, but that they can—and do—spur more students to complete their college degrees and certificates.
The number of “College Promise” programs has more than tripled over the past few years, from 53 in 2013 to more than 200 today.
Here Are Six Places That are Making Free Community College a Reality:
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam put together a bipartisan coalition of elected officials and leaders from the business and nonprofit sector to launch the Tennessee Promise in 2014, making the Volunteer State, the first in the nation to offer students free community college.
Officials figured out a way to finance the program using a combination of funds from state lottery surplus revenues, foundations, and businesses. The nationally renowned performance scholarship, mentoring, and community service program covers tuition and fees for recent high school graduates to complete their education at one of the state’s community colleges or technical schools. Early results demonstrate that the program is on its way to achieving Tennessee’s goal to get more state residents to start and complete college, enabling them to do so without taking on burdensome debt.
Kalamazoo Promise, Kalamazoo, MI
Since 2005, the Kalamazoo Promise has covered tuition and fees for any Kalamazoo High School graduate to attend any public college in Michigan, as well as any private college in the state. The generous program was launched by a group of anonymous donors not only to offer benefits to students and families but also to boost local economic development. Residency and high school graduation are the only requirements to receive funds; neither merit or financial need are considered. Local officials report that the Kalamazoo Promise has encouraged more families to live in Kalamazoo and more high school graduates to attend college. Ninety percent of students eligible for Promise enroll in college upon completing high school.
El Dorado Promise, El Dorado, AR
In Arkansas, El Dorado recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of its College Promise program. A decade ago, the Murphy Oil Corporation launched the El Dorado Promise—which covers tuition and fees for all El Dorado High School graduates who have attended EHS since the ninth grade. These students may attend any accredited college or university in the United States. The program’s results are impressive: stabilized high school enrollment, strong college-going culture, students pursuing more rigorous high school courses, and many more students going on to college. Today in El Dorado, 84% of high school graduates now go on to college compared with 50% statewide.
Long Beach Promise, Long Beach, CA
Since 2008, all recent high school graduates from the Long Beach Unified School District are eligible to receive one year of free tuition at Long Beach City College and, for those who meet the eligibility requirements, guaranteed admission to the California State University, Long Beach. Over a decade ago, leaders from the City of Long Beach and its School District formed a coalition with Long Beach City College and CSU-Long Beach to create the program designed to fight poverty by boosting high school graduation rates and encouraging more local residents to attend college. The program creates a culture of college-going expectations by providing academic support and guidance for students from the moment they begin elementary school.
The Long Beach Promise has inspired communities all across the state to develop free community college programs. Tuition-free programs have emerged in cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland, Fresno, and San Francisco. College Promise programs are also spreading in rural and suburban communities, including Barstow, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Siskiyous, and San Marcos. The California Legislature is even considering statewide proposals to make the first year of community college tuition free for full-time students. The goal is to open the door for more lower income students to get an education beyond high school and to provide funds for state Cal Grant recipients to cover living expenses and other college costs.
Van Guarantee, Henderson NC
Large cities and states are not the only ones adopting tuition-free college programs. Across the country, rural communities are finding a way to provide free community college tuition to educate and train their residents for 21st jobs. In the northeast corner of North Carolina, the Vance-Granville Community College system began offering free community college benefits to qualified residents of Vance, Granville, Franklin and Warren Counties regardless of age. As long as students enroll in at least nine hours per semester and maintain a 2.5 GPA, they can receive funds for tuition, fees, and textbooks.