When Even Low Tuition Is Too Much

Cam Holmes graduated from Tulsa Community College on Friday – and she says that, but for a program created three years ago, she never would have done so.

May 12, 2010

Cam Holmes graduated from Tulsa Community College on Friday – and she says that, but for a program created three years ago, she never would have done so.

In 2007, the year she graduated from high school, Tulsa Community College created Tulsa Achieves, which waives tuition for many local residents. That year, Holmes was among 1,357 first-time freshmen from local high schools who participated. Overall, first-time freshmen enrollment at the college rose by nearly 400 students from the year prior. College officials attribute this steep enrollment growth to the program, arguing that it has attracted many students to the college who otherwise would not have considered it an option for them.

“I didn’t know where I wanted to go to college or even if I could have gone to college,” said Holmes, 21. “My G.P.A. wasn’t that high, and I just didn’t apply myself in the way that I do now.”

Holmes credits Tulsa Achieves with giving her direction – she plans to transfer to Oklahoma State University in the fall, and to major in broadcast journalism – as well as the finances to afford her first two years of college. She already qualified for Pell Grants, but Tulsa Achieves took care of the remainder of her costs. She said that the program has changed some of her neighbors' mindsets about attending college.

"Some of them feel a different attitude about college and importance of it," Holmes said. "I know I’ve talked to some people who are new to the program, and they kind of had the same situation I had – people came out of high school not knowing what they want to do."

At a time when community colleges are being urged to attract and to graduate more students, Tulsa Achieves suggests that price matters -- even with relatively low-cost institutions. But it also shows that community colleges may be able to waive tuition for many students without breaking the bank. Through a mixture of financial aid, private donations and state support, college officials say they have found a way to make up for the tuition these students would have paid, all while providing access for hundreds more students, boosting retention rates and further diversifying their campus. While tuition at the college – about $1,100 for a full-time semester of four courses – is relatively low, the effort suggests not only that there may be a critical mass of students for whom any tuition may be a hindrance but also that these students can succeed.

The college is the largest two-year institution in Oklahoma, serving about 27,000 students per semester. After state and federal financial aid is applied, the “gap-funding program” pays any remaining tuition balance for up to 63 credit hours for eligible students. Only Tulsa residents who graduate from a public or private high school or home school with a 2.0 grade point average qualify. To maintain Tulsa Achieves funding, students must retain county residency, take an orientation class within their first year, complete 40 hours of volunteer service each academic year and stay in “good academic standing.” They must earn at least a 1.7 GPA when they have 30 credit hours or less and at least a 2.0 GPA when they have 31 credit hours or more. Furthermore, they must complete at least three credit hours each semester and complete at least 70 percent of all of their attempted coursework.

The requirements reflect a number of the hot ideas in the discussion about community colleges' "completion agenda": that many students need to be taught to study, that efforts to connect students to the college in multiple ways are key to retention, and that avoiding missed semesters is key.

Localized programs that help high school students cover the cost of college tuition, like Tulsa Achieves, are not new. For example, Kalamazoo Promise, a program in Michigan that is funded by a small group of anonymous donors, has helped more than 1,100 of the city’s public school graduates pay their tuition at any institution in the state since it began in 2005. Despite the success of such privately funded ventures, it is often hard for public entities such as local governments or colleges to establish and maintain similar tuition-waiver programs. Voters in Davenport, Iowa, for instance, rejected a program last year that would have given each of the city’s high school graduates a lump sum of $20,000 for use at any college or university of their choosing.

Tulsa Community College officials said, however, that they have found such an effort affordable. To help maximize federal and state aid awards before institutional funds are used to pay for tuition, Tulsa Achieves students are required to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Aside from this aid, the cost of Tulsa Achieves is kept down by students who qualify for Oklahoma’s Promise, a statewide program that waives public college tuition for those who come from families that earn less than $50,000 a year.

The effort led to an immediate gain in Pell Grant funds, which increased by 50 percent in the program's first year, to $450,000 -- as more students enrolled and more applied for aid. Overall, the college is only paying full tuition for about 37 percent of those who enroll through the program.

“The projections were on target,” said Tom McKeon, college president. “One of the primary reasons we’ve been able to do this is we’re one of only three community colleges in Oklahoma that receive local money. … And our tax base is large; we have 14 independent school districts. Local funding makes up a third of our operating budget. … That gave us a lot of flexibility. We feel we’re giving back to a county that’s been supporting us for 35 years.”

This year, McKeon noted, Tulsa Achieves cost the college $4.6 million, less than 6 percent of its operational budget. He said that this is “considerably less” than other community colleges in his state offer in scholarships.

The local community has embraced Tulsa Achieves to such a degree, McKeon noted, that local residents and business owners have helped the college raise nearly $1.2 million for a “textbook trust.” In this way, deserving students can also have their textbooks paid for without having to dip any further into institutional funds.

McKeon believes the college’s financial planning for the program will keep it around for a long time.

“We’re committed to our promise,” McKeon said. “It’s not created a financial hardship for our institution, even in the midst of this recession; we’ve had to cut our budgets just like everyone else. But we’re seeing improvement out there; house prices are steady and unemployment is going down.”

Matt Short, college financial aid director, sees other benefits. For example, he noted that the college’s annual loan volume decreased by nearly 1,000 loans when it launched Tulsa Achieves and that “is almost certainly correlated very closely to the 1,300 odd freshmen that did not have loans packaged on their awards that year for the first time.”

Lauren Brookey, college spokeswoman, noted that, since the program started, its 4,342 participating students have completed more than 92,000 hours in community service. She added that the Tulsa Achieves has also helped the college reach out to minority and other “underserved” students.

“We call this the ‘no excuses scholarship,’ ” Brookey said. “It helps spread the word and get more people to go to college. The simplicity of the program, we think, makes it easy for us to tell students that they have no reason not to go to college.”

Tracey Medina, for example, is the first in her family to go to college, and she credits Tulsa Achieves with getting her there.

"My parents told me that they would help me as much as they could, but they didn't think it was going to be possible to pay for college," the 19-year-old said. "Now that I'm here, they are very proud of me because I'm a first-generation college student and I'm helping other students enroll at the school. The rest of my family, especially my nieces and nephews, really look up to me now and always ask me all about college."

Tulsa Achieves has already influenced the creation of another program in Knoxville, Tennessee called knoxAchieves, which will give 500 Knox County public high school graduates up to $3,000 annually for community college tuition. McKeon also said that he has heard from some elected officials in his state of Oklahoma, who have ambitions of creating a statewide program.


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