Tuition-Free, With Strings

Advocates for free college worry that residency, course-load and drug-testing requirements will keep the neediest students out of state programs.

February 23, 2018
 

For years, many states -- believing that a postsecondary credential is a necessity to succeed in the economy -- have moved toward making the first two years of college tuition free. But a growing number are attaching requirements and conditions to tuition-free plans that worry advocates for low-income students.

Minimum grade point average requirements are common. And several free-college programs now mandate that students major in certain subjects, take drug tests or enroll full-time to be eligible.

Mississippi, for instance, is considering a bill that would restrict free tuition to career and technical education programs. And Kentucky's free community college program is limited to students who seek certificates in five state-identified industries with worker shortages -- health care, advanced manufacturing, transportation and logistics, business services and internet technology, and construction.

"We would prefer states enact the most universal possible free college programs," said Morley Winograd, president of the Campaign for Free College Tuition. "But we're also cognizant that [they are] enacting free college tuition for different reasons and therefore they are likely to arrive at a different legislative solution to address, in the legislation, the problem they're trying to solve."

The details of each initiative play out differently state by state, he said, and depend on the economics, goals and politics of each region.

"It's a reflection of why they think they're giving out the benefit," Winograd said. "Some legislators and voters are doing so because they want everyone to have an opportunity for an education that is necessary to a successful economic life, but others are thinking of it as a particular tool or weapon to improve their economic development prospects."

It's understandable that states would want to direct their students to industries where they know there are shortages or potential for future growth, Winograd said. But it can be difficult for many high school students to know which career they want to pursue or if they will have the ability to pursue those careers.

In defending his state's free tuition program, New York governor Andrew Cuomo addressed criticism about its residency requirement by asking, "Why should New Yorkers pay for your college education and then you pick up and you move to California?"

Martha Kanter, a former under secretary of education in the Obama administration, now leads the College Promise Campaign, another advocacy group. She said state lawmakers manage their free-tuition programs aggressively for the same reason they created them.

"Political leaders around the country are frustrated that not enough students are graduating, the progress isn't fast enough and it takes too long to move students through the process," said Kanter.

The harder question, she said, is how states and systems can help students who are working full-time take more credits and be successful, which requires covering transportation, childcare, textbooks and more.

"It's a balancing act," Kanter said. "If you put requirements of high [grade point average] and full-time, you're going to have more success and fewer students participating. The more selective you are, you probably will see better outcomes from the research."

Requirements for Colleges

Sometimes states have added requirements to tuition-subsidy programs that are aimed at colleges rather than students.

California, for example, last year passed a law to make the first year of community college tuition-free for first-time students. That program joins roughly 50 local tuition-free initiatives in the state, as well as the rebranded California Promise Grant, formerly known as the Board of Governors fee waiver for low-income students, which makes community college tuition-free for approximately one million of the state's 2.1 million community college students.

The California College Promise program places requirements on community colleges that want to participate -- colleges must partner with K-12 school districts in an early college commitment program as well as use the state's guided pathways project.

Not everyone is happy about California's approach to free college, however.

"We believe all of higher education should be tuition-free," said Dean Murakami, a professor of psychology at American River College and president of the Los Rios College Federation of Teachers, a faculty union. "But this program is now going to get those students who are middle and higher income. It targets a population that is not that vulnerable, and we have a concern there. We're paying for rich people to come in. And is supplementing their fees a good usage of the money at this point?"

California governor Jerry Brown's budget, released last month, would allocate about $46 million toward the Promise program.

"We think there are better alternatives," Murakami said. "We can use that to help vulnerable, low-income students."

Murakami said those dollars could be better used to help students with homelessness, the cost of textbooks, transportation and childcare, or food insecurity, which are issues at-risk community college students face even when tuition is free.

Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the community college system's chancellor, said in a letter to the institutions that even with the fee waiver and the statewide Promise program, "the struggle to lower the full cost of attending college has only scratched the surface, because attending a California community college is still far from free."

Those communities and institutions in the state that have been raising money or working with local leaders to create Promise programs will have the flexibility now to use those funds to offer a second tuition-free year, or cover books, supplies and other expenses for low-income students because of the statewide Promise, he said.

Most faculty members don't see a problem with the early commitment program, which educates families on college opportunities, financial aid and offers preparatory courses. But some institutions may not be prepared to participate, he said.

As for guided pathways, those are decisions made on the local level by individual campuses and academic senates, Murakami said, adding that the law's conditions weren't included in early discussions with faculty leaders.

"What they're doing here is they're coercing colleges and districts to be part of guided pathways and early commitment programs because if they're not, they can't get the funding to help these students," he said.

But colleges have to move beyond incentivizing access and toward incentivizing completion, Oakley said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

"We want true access for students," he said, "to make sure the reforms we put in place lead to greater outcomes for students."

A couple of colleges may be challenged by the requirements, Oakley said, but all 114 have notified his office that they intend to participate.

The Push for Full-Time

The California program would only benefit students who attend community college full-time. That requirement, which other states also have included, has been criticized by free-college advocates.

"I wish everyone could take 15 units in a semester, but that's not possible if most students are working full-time," Kanter said. "The easy thing to do is put more requirements on students. The hard thing is making sure they get advising, mentoring and mapping schedule."

However, Winograd said, he views attendance or completion requirements differently from postgraduation residency rules, for example. Both New York and Rhode Island's programs include residency requirements.

"It's one thing to get kids into college," he said. "But it's ultimately not the end of the challenge unless we get them to complete their education."

Winograd points to former president Obama's national proposal for free community college, which would have required participating students take at least 12 credits a semester.

In New York, in order to qualify for the state's tuition-free program, which also applies to four-year institutions, students must take 30 credits a year. A postgraduation residency requirement also asks recipients to live and work in the state for the length of time they participated in the scholarship program.

"We would not be supportive of something that required people to work in the state if there is any kind of labor mobility that would be restricted," Winograd said.

Tennessee has received wide acclaim as the first state in the country to offer free community college, through the Tennessee Promise. But Bill Haslam, the state's Republican governor, recently called for a requirement that students complete 30 credits a year to maintain the scholarship.

Officials in Tennessee are optimistic that encouraging students to pursue full-time status will help raise graduation and retention rates. An end-of-the-year report from Complete Tennessee revealed that the state still struggles with community college completion, with three-year graduation rates averaging 20 percent in 2016.

"We focused a lot on access and made gains on the college-going rate," said Samantha Gutter, education policy adviser in the Tennessee governor's office. "But our completion rates in Tennessee are not where we would like them to be."

The six-year graduation rate is 26.3 percent for the state's community colleges and 56.8 percent for undergraduate programs at universities. The state wants to increase the percentage of adults with a certificate or degree from 40.7 percent now to 55 percent by 2025.

"This is truly 30 [credits] in 12 [months]," Gutter said. "We want to set the bar high, but also give them the flexibility to complete within a year and get them on track. We're hearing from the critics, but this is a research-based practice."

Research showed a positive impact on students in Indiana after they received a financial incentive under the state's 15 to Finish initiative.

The completion requirements in Tennessee wouldn't apply to adults in the state's Reconnect program, which is tuition-free for nontraditional students. And the state is asking colleges to create ready-made guides that build in the 30 hours for students.

If students can't complete 30 credit hours, the scholarship isn't revoked, Gutter said, but lowered by $250. And because the Promise is a last-dollar scholarship, those students who receive Pell Grants wouldn't see a dramatic change.

There's one additional safeguard. Students who received college credit in high school through dual-enrollment courses, International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement could apply that credit to meeting the full-time requirement, Gutter said.

But, she said, the state isn't broadcasting those safeguards directly to students.

"Even students who come from a disadvantaged background can rise to meet these expectations," she said, adding that, on average, Tennessee Promise recipients take 13 credits a semester.

Drug Testing in West Virginia

West Virginia's free college program mandates that graduates remain in the state for two years. And the Legislature also is considering a requirement for tuition-free recipients to take a drug test at their own cost.

The proposal drew the ire of free-college advocates like Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, who tweeted, "Let's be clear: the people pushing 15 to Finish, tying financial aid to credits, are the same people imposing work requirements on the social safety net and drug testing free college. These are no leaders."

But Winograd said the proposal is a political compromise.

"The way to secure the votes needed was to assure that people who are breaking the law wouldn't be a recipient of this benefit," he said. "It is worth noting the provision passed the Senate unanimously. Democrats and Republicans in West Virginia voted for the idea."

Kanter said the country is moving in the right direction on free tuition and hopes the added requirements don't restrict access for students.

"I'm still holding the flag of college for all, and we need a more educated country," she said. "There is a lot of lost talent, and the more restrictions politicians put on Promise programs or need-based aid, like if you add more drug testing … what will it do for the population you're there to lead and serve? I'm hoping politicians learn from research and listen to the research and don't pick the easiest things based on money."

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