Fulfilling the promise of ‘free’ community college

As the term “free college” draws applicants and ever-more media attention, states, cities and colleges are learning the realities of these large-scale aid programs.

In Oregon, due to an $8 million deficit in state appropriations for its $40 million Promise program, only 4 out of 5 eligible students (recent high school grads and GED holders) will be awarded scholarships in its first year.

Community colleges’ funding, when it’s part of a state’s general budget, is often cut before other areas, says Carrie Kisker, education research, policy consultant and director of the Center for the Study of Community Colleges. “I imagine we will see this happening across the country.”

Universities, states and cities are amping up communication with applicants to better serve them and create a positive buzz around free tuition programs. For example, students are encouraged to fill out their FAFSAs and apply for other grants to stretch these programs further, says Kisker.

Many Promise programs operate as last dollar—filling gaps in tuition after other financial aid is applied. Some programs offer extras for low-income students, such as a $1,000 grant over tuition for eligible Oregon Promise students.

“Being able to plan for college does depend on having information far enough in advance that families can use a grant,” says Ben Cannon, executive director of Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission. “Unfortunately, there is sometimes a short window between state funding decisions and the actual effect of the budget on students and families.”

Oregon would benefit from creating a dedicated funding source for the program, as Tennessee did for its Promise program, he adds.


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