Benefits of Free

Momentum and criticism build for tuition-free community college plans, but even some skeptics say scholarships in Tennessee and Chicago could bring in more low-income students.

October 16, 2014
High school students in Tennessee during a college application event

The concept of tuition-free community college is picking up steam. Chicago this month followed Tennessee with the creation of a new community-college scholarship for high school graduates.

Meanwhile, student demand in Tennessee has been enormous. The Tennessean, a Nashville newspaper, reported that in just two months 35,000 high school seniors have applied to the program, which is called the Tennessee Promise. The state appears likely to double its original estimate of 20,000 applications.

“We are going to get a lot of new people,” said Karen Bowyer, president of Dyersburg State Community College.

Despite the enthusiasm, the “free” community college plans have critics.

The scholarships do not cover most living expenses, they have said, such as for transportation or day care. Some of the money also will go to students who can afford to pay for tuition.

In addition, Chicago’s Star Scholarship has drawn fire for its eligibility requirements, which critics said look like merit aid.

The scholarship was jointly announced by Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s mayor, and Cheryl Hyman, chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago. Students must have a high-school GPA of 3.0 and need no remediation in math or English to qualify.

Only an estimated 3,000 of the city’s roughly 20,000 high school graduates would qualify. A spokeswoman for City Colleges said the annual estimated cost of the scholarship is $2 million, which would easily be covered by the $10 million the system saved through consolidations and cuts in its capital plan.

(All Tennessee high school graduates may apply for the Tennessee Promise. But they must enroll full-time and maintain a 2.0 GPA.)

Even so, free-tuition plans send a powerful positive message to lower-income students, said several experts, including those who are skeptical about some details of the scholarships. That’s because the full-court blitz of saying “college is for you” might bring in more students who otherwise would have passed on higher education.  

Take the “last-dollar” scholarship complaint, which refers to the fact that the plans pay only for tuition and fees that federal and state grant aid fail to covers. The maximum Pell Grant of $5,645 is more than the annual tuition charged by both Tennessee’s two-year colleges and the City Colleges of Chicago. That means relatively little scholarship money might go to lower-income students.

Yet students need to pursue federal aid eligibility to get it. And they must first fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which has been bashed widely for being too complicated. Needier students typically also lack the family and peer support to navigate financial aid forms.

That’s where scholarship programs like Tennessee’s can come in.

Tennessee Promise

Applications so far: 35,000+

Original goal: 20,000

Estimated enrollment with scholarship: 12,000

TN high school graduates last year: 63,133

Total enrollment in two-year colleges: 102,483

“We think there are a lot of lower-income students who don’t know the financial aid resources that are available to them,” said Mike Krause, the Tennessee Promise’s executive director. By telling high-school students that their college tuition will be covered -- in clear and simple language -- Krause said, “you get them to the table.”

The program also includes a broad range of supports for its award recipients. Before students enroll next fall, they will be assigned to a mentor. So far 5,000 of the needed 6,000 mentors have been recruited. Company employees, retirees and college staff have signed up, among others.

Students also will be required to attend two on-campus orientation events this spring, which Krause said will be designed to help first-generation college students. They must also complete eight hours of community service.

The orientations will seek to reduce students’ anxiety, Krause said, by answering questions like, “What is a bursar?”

That sort of one-on-one guidance for incoming students is common at selective colleges, but rare at cash-strapped community colleges. And the Tennessee Promise gets high school students in the enrollment pipeline a full year out, which is also unusual because many new community college students register just weeks or even days before courses start.

Krause said many high school guidance counselors around the state are on board and working with students on how to attend community college. All those factors should go a long way to helping students avoid snags with financial aid.

Bowyer said she’s already seeing it happen at her college. Prospective students and their parents have been on campus for events like the statewide “Scholarship Saturday” in September.

“They’ve never gone through the FAFSA,” she said of many families, but they are getting help with it now.

The Tennessee Promise builds on a similar private scholarship program, tnAchieves, which has been offered around much of the state for years. The program also includes a heavy dose of student supports, including mentors.

“They get the message,” said Bowyer of tnAchieves’ scholarship recipients. “There are a lot of people helping these young people.”

Free and Merit-Based?

Robert Kelchen is one of the skeptics. Kelchen, an assistant professor in Seton Hall University’s department of education leadership, management and policy, recently wrote about several possible problems with free community college policies, pointing in particular at how they might fail to help lower-income students.

Yet Kelchen agreed that the programs’ symbolic value could be substantial. For example, he pointed to research finding that students who received help with their FAFSA, as well as information about financial aid options, were more likely to enroll in college and to receive more aid money.

As a result, Kelchen said, officials in Tennessee might be able to make good on their bet that more students will pursue federal aid because of the scholarship.

“I hope they’re right,” he said.

The eligibility requirements of Chicago’s scholarship are a tougher sell to higher education experts.

Evelyn N. Waiwaiole, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, compared those criteria to that of Georgia’s HOPE scholarship, which has controversial merit elements.

Tuition-free community college scholarships “are created with good intentions,” she said via email. “But we have to ask -- who really wins?”

Tom Bailey also is skeptical about free-tuition plans. Bailey, who directs the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, wonders if the programs will be accompanied by steep tuition hikes or by taking state support away from colleges. (That hasn’t happened in Tennessee or Chicago, at least yet.)

Yet Bailey notes that the scholarships in Tennessee and Chicago are part of wider-ranging campaigns.

Since 2010 City Colleges of Chicago have been working on a “reinvention” that seeks to improve student success and institutional efficiency. At the project’s core is an attempt to graduate more students. And it’s working: the system has nearly doubled both the number of degrees awarded and its formerly abysmal graduation rate, which is up to 13 percent from 7 percent.

Bailey said the Chicago scholarship is in the “spirit of reform,” and could help build momentum for the colleges’ promising work on student success.

Big Numbers

Bill Haslam, Tennessee’s Republican governor, has made the Tennessee Promise the cornerstone of his ambitious college completion push for the state.

To put the 35,000 applications for the scholarship in context, Tennessee had 63,000 high school graduates last year. Its 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of applied technology enroll 99,000 students, a small portion of whom are first-time, full-time students like those who might attend under the scholarship program.

State officials are sticking to their original high-end estimate of 12,000 students who actually will attend community college as part of the Tennessee Promise.

Many students have applied as an insurance policy, in case they don’t get into a four-year institution.

Entire senior classes have signed up at some Tennessee high schools. Many of those who don’t end up taking advantage of the scholarship will enroll in Tennessee’s four-year institutions. That’s obviously not a bad thing, state officials said. And some among those eventual 12,000 students would have enrolled in community colleges anyhow.

Yet the expected influx from the Tennessee Promise will make a difference -- a big one.

“We’re going to have enough students show up that the college-going rate in Tennessee changes,” said Krause.

The state’s two-year colleges should be able to handle the bump in students, said Krause and others. Enrollment at Tennessee community colleges has been falling after a multiyear post-recession bump. It dropped by more than 4 percent last year, after a similar decline last year.

Dyersburg is ready, said Bowyer. Like other two-year institutions in Tennessee, the college has benefited from generous state funding for facilities in recent years. (Operational support did not go up during this tight budget year, however, despite Gov. Haslam’s request for more money.) Dyersburg has 188 square feet of facility space per full-time-equivalent student, which is among the roomiest in the state.

Despite the flood of applications, the Tennessee Promise’s leaders are pushing hard for more before the application deadline of Nov. 1.

Krause has logged thousands of miles while crisscrossing the state to visit high schools and promote the scholarship. When reached this week he was headed to Jackson State Community College for a sign-up event.

The plan is to “hit every corner of the state,” he said, “and make sure every student has an opportunity.”


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