Most scholarships and tuition-free community college programs either focus on covering the entirety of a student's two years in college or at least the first year.
But with more two-year colleges shifting focus from student access to completion, there is growing interest in how to ensure that more students don't stop out after one year.
Marion Technical College, located in Ohio, found a solution in an unusual place -- Inside Higher Ed's "Confessions of a Community College Dean" column. That solution, offered by writer Matt Reed, proposed making the second year of college tuition-free, not the first.
"We were trying to find ways for students to take classes in the summer for free and researching how to incentivize students," said Ryan McCall, Marion Tech's president. "We'd been thinking about it and talking about it and then I read Matt's article. Do we stick with the summer idea or do we try to go further and expand it to the idea of providing students with a second year free after they've proven they want to do the work and be here?"
Reed's idea came after news last year about the plan from Jerry Brown, California's Democratic governor, to cover the first year of community college. The state already boasts some of the lowest tuition rates in the country, but for cash-strapped areas, Reed wrote that the "buy a year, get one free" model would be more useful. A few community college districts in the state have been considering changes to their local tuition-free programs to cover the second year, while the statewide one-year Promise program covers the first. Ohio doesn't have a statewide tuition-free program.
"The up-front cost would be much less because it wouldn't cover students who walk away after a semester or two," Reed wrote. "But the message to students would actually be positive. ‘Show us you're serious,’ the program would say, ‘and we'll help you finish.’ The free second year is earned by the successful completion of the first. It looks less like a freebie and more like a reward. It answers the cultural desire for 'skin in the game' by having students work for it."
Thus emerged the Marion Tech idea, better known as the Get to Next Scholars program. Incoming students will receive a tuition-free second year -- or 35 credit hours free -- if they complete at least 30 hours of college-level courses in the first year while earning at least a 2.5 grade point average.
As part of the program -- and to encourage students to pursue the 30-hour credit minimum -- students will receive a $100 stipend toward books each semester, in addition to access to a dedicated adviser.
McCall said there was some concern at the college that first-year students wouldn't see any benefits to the work they were putting into going full-time, so they added the textbook stipend for both years.
Reed, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, said he applauded Marion Tech for expanding on the idea by providing the stipend and additional academic support.
"One of the arguments I've heard against free community college is that it makes other scholarships moot and leaves money on the table," he said. "But you're still leaving room for private philanthropy to cover the first year."
Most importantly, Reed said, is that Marion Tech is rewarding behavior.
"It's one thing to jump into college and have the flush of excitement and the novelty, but after the novelty wears off, it's a lot of work," Reed said. "Now that the novelty has worn off, we'll help you finish."
Completing college can be difficult for students for several reasons, although experts pinpoint financial issues as a significant reason why students drop out toward the end of their degree programs. An analysis released last week by Civitas Learning showed one in five community college students left college without a degree despite completing 75 percent or more of the credit threshold.
But some have criticized programs that encourage full-time status at community colleges, even in exchange for free tuition. Tennessee lawmakers recently rejected a plan that would have required recipients of that state's Promise program to complete 30 credits in 12 months because it would have penalized students who also worked or were unable to commit to full-time status.
At Marion Tech, 70 percent of students attend full-time, about 70 percent receive federal aid and more than 90 percent receive some form of financial aid.
"Based on the research, they take a little bit of a heavier load, and because of momentum they have a better chance of finishing," McCall said. "Primarily, this is about helping students get their degree in a shorter time frame and for less of the cost."
Amy Adams, Marion Tech's vice president of planning and advancement, said the scholarship is still a pilot and that administrators are aware of concerns about encouraging students to pursue full-time status.
"We want to make sure they have the right support group, so we're looking at these students as a cohort coming in," she said. "They'll be assigned an academic adviser so they're all on the right pathways and taking the appropriate classes, not falling behind, not feeling overwhelmed, and meeting as a group."
The college, which enrolls about 2,700 students, didn't start marketing the program until this spring. So far it has received about 30 applications for the scholarship. The program is expected to cost the college about $30,000 initially. And officials at Marion Tech have started reaching out to donors to help expand the last-dollar scholarship.
Ultimately the goal is to increase the college's completion rates. Marion Tech's fall-to-fall retention rate is about 60 percent, while its transfer rate is slightly more than 50 percent and the three-year federal graduation rate is 21 percent, McCall said, adding that each of those rates is "unacceptable."
"If I can, I want to show the college and donors that if we had more scholarship dollars to provide to students, we can increase the retention and graduation rates," he said.