By Martha Kanter
Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) signed sweeping new legislation into law, making public colleges and universities free for low and middle income students New York. This bold step is the latest in a growing national movement to make community college free for all hardworking students. Over the past year, numerous programs have launched as more leaders throughout the country recognize that a high school diploma is no longer enough. The College Promise Campaign, a nonpartisan initiative encouraging the establishment of free community college programs in local communities and states, is helping to drive this movement throughout the country.
New York’s Excelsior Scholarship
New York joins the list of innovative communities and states expanding the opportunity for students to complete an undergraduate degree without assuming the burden of escalating college debt. The Excelsior Scholarship, proposed by Governor Cuomo at a rally with Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), makes New York the first and largest state in the nation to extend free college to eligible students at public colleges and universities. With the goal of increasing the number of college graduates and producing a highly skilled workforce, the program is expected to serve 200,000 students a year.
The College Promise Campaign has been building support for free community college in New York for two years. Honorary Chair Dr. Jill Biden met with students at a rally at LaGuardia Community College in Queens in November of 2015.
Southern States Following Tennessee’s Example
Tennessee was the first state in the nation to adopt free community college. In 2014, Governor Bill Haslam (R-TN) pioneered the program to provide recent high school graduates with free tuition at Tennessee’s community colleges and technical schools. Through a combination of scholarship dollars, mentoring, and a community service component, the Tennessee Promise is achieving impressive results.
Tennessee is poised to extend the program to adult residents in addition to recent high school graduates.
Tennessee’s neighbors are taking notice. Governor Asa Hutchinson (R-AR) signed legislation in March to fund community college tuition for students pursuing in-demand career paths. That’s why our staff met with the governor’s team earlier this year. Recently, Governor Matt Bevin (R-KY) announced his updated plan for a tuition-free certification in the Bluegrass State.
Gateway Tech Offering Free Community College in the Midwest
In 2016, Southeastern Wisconsin had the state’s highest unemployment rate. To address joblessness in this blue collar region, officials at Gateway Technical College partnered with local businesses to launch the Gateway Promise. College Promise Campaign staff were on hand for the launch to support the new program and celebrate the nationwide drive to make a community college education an affordable opportunity for all.
“It’s important that [free community college] be used as an economic development tool — that when companies consider where they are going to locate, they know that their employees’ families will have access to education at little or no cost,” said Gateway Tech President Bryan Albrecht at the program’s launch. “This will be a driver for businesses in our region.”
In California, Rapid Growth in Cities and Rural Communities
When it comes to the College Promise movement, California’s growth outpaces all other states. Over the past two years, the number of programs in California ballooned, from 8 to 55.
Many of those efforts are inspired by the success of the Long Beach Promise. Long Beach City College’s former president, Eloy Oakley, is accelerating the growth of Promise programs from his new position as Chancellor of the California Community College system, building on $15 million that California lawmakers and Governor Jerry Brown (D-CA) invested in expanding College Promise programs in the state. Communities across California are now competing with one another to build the best free community college programs for their students.
In August of 2016, the College Promise Campaign and WestEd convened over 300 leaders from across California to learn about building local free community college programs. Following this gathering, the state awarded 14 regional College Promise Innovation Grants, encouraging community colleges to develop their programs in partnership with their local K-12 districts, universities, and other public and private sector partners.
Join the Movement
All across the country, local and state leaders acknowledge that students need to continue their education beyond high school to prosper in the 21st century. That is why the College Promise movement is gaining momentum. Elected leaders in communities and states throughout the nation are now working with business, education, philanthropic, nonprofit, and other local partners to develop innovative ways to make community college education as universal and free as public high school has been for nearly a century.