A student at the Community College of Baltimore County stands near the bus stop at her school in 2022. Many states are looking to give grants to residents to make community college practically free for some students (Photo by Elaine S. Povich/Stateline).
By Elaine S. Povich
As the idea of free community college gains traction across the country, some lawmakers have gotten bolder in their concepts — expanding existing programs or pitching legislation that would offer free college to anyone.
The latest example is Massachusetts, where Democratic Gov. Maura Healey’s 2024 budget includes $20 million to expand the state’s free community college program to include any student over 25 without a college degree.
Although the legislation is still going through changes, both the House and Senate have included her idea in their proposals. The grants would be paid for with a surtax on the very wealthy.
“I think it advantages everyone, the individual and the larger society,” said David Podell, president of Massachusetts Bay Community College.
Having a more educated population helps the overall economy, Podell pointed out, and fills gaps in the workforce. Eventually, state tax coffers benefit as more people get better-paying jobs, he said in a phone interview.
Other states are similarly looking at programs that can get students as close to free tuition as possible.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, included such a proposal in his budget, suggesting a $100 million expansion of the state’s college grant program. The state’s lawmakers, meanwhile, have just sent him a bill that would guarantee certain community college credits will transfer to four-year state universities — a problem that has hurt many transfer students in the past.
And Minnesota’s 2024-25 budget would include a free college tuition program. It would apply to students at both two- and four-year public colleges and universities, but only families with incomes below $80,000 would be eligible. The plan was approved by the legislature and is awaiting action from Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat.
About 30 states already have some kind of tuition grant program for community college students, according to the Campaign for Free College Tuition, a nonprofit group that advocates for tuition-free education and tracks state programs.
New Mexico’s program is among the most generous, with nearly any prospective student eligible to get full tuition funding. Combined with scholarships funded by New Mexico’s lottery program, the state is responsible for the “first dollar” funding, meaning the state money comes to a student first, and any other aid such as a Pell grant can be used for expenses such as books and fees.
Tennessee, like a lot of other states, has a “last dollar” program, which, like the Massachusetts proposal, fills in the gaps left after federal scholarships and other grants are exhausted. Tennessee’s grant program is dependent on students maintaining a 2.0 GPA in college and completing eight hours of community service for each semester enrolled.
And Colorado enacted legislation this year expanding a limited free college tuition program targeted to health care workers and several other in-demand fields.
Some in the Massachusetts legislature have questioned whether Healey’s proposal goes far enough.
Senate President Karen Spilka, a Democrat, said earlier this year she’d like to expand the program to cover all students, not just those 25 and over, and use more of the “millionaire’s tax” money to cover the increased cost.
And Democratic Rep. Natalie Higgins, at a hearing held in March at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said there are an estimated 700,000 residents with some college education who might want to go back and finish their associate degree. But when you divide $20 million by that number, she noted, “that’s 28 bucks a person,” not nearly enough.
Average Massachusetts community college tuition is around $7,000, according to the state Department of Education.
Podell, who is also chair of the Council of Community College Presidents, said the additional state funding still would mean that a “lot of people can come to college, having not perceived it as an option before because they couldn’t afford it.”
State educators have looked at similar data from Michigan, he said, and extrapolated from it that about 5,000 to 7,000 new students would enter community college in his state under Healey’s plan. Colleges have plenty of space, he added, because enrollment dipped during the coronavirus pandemic and hasn’t returned to previous levels.
While most critics in Massachusetts say the program might do too little, other opponents around the country say free college tuition programs are generally too costly and don’t produce good results.
Richard Vatz, a rhetoric and communication professor emeritus at Towson University in Maryland, pointed out that “free” may mean no cost to students, but somebody of course pays for it. In these state programs, it’s the taxpayers. Maryland offers a free community college grant plan with some restrictions, including that students must have a certain GPA in high school.
“There doesn’t seem to be any justification in taking money from the general public for some people to go to college,” Vatz said. In addition, he noted, dropout and graduation rates at community colleges make it a poor investment.
Of the students who started at two-year colleges in 2020, only about 60% were still studying two years later, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, an educational research group.
Good students, Vatz said, can find other sources of financial aid, such as scholarships and loans.
“It’s almost hard to avoid financial aid when you go to school,” he said. “The necessity for having the public pay for students who go to community college. … The bang isn’t worth the buck.”
Ryan Morgan, CEO of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, said dropout rates have more to do with an individual student’s life and obligations like family than they do with accessibility to college.
“If you’re a pessimist … you say it’s a giant waste of money,” he said, but the students who finish “outweigh the cost of the folks who don’t complete school. It’s totally worth it.”
Morgan said his group would prefer that grant programs be open to all students, not just those over 25 as in the Massachusetts proposal. He noted that the Michigan plan started out at age 25. A bill to lower the age to 21 has passed the Michigan House and is awaiting action by the Senate. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has called for the age to be lowered.
“They wouldn’t do that if it wasn’t working,” Morgan said.
Elaine S. Povich wrote this story for Stateline, a part of States Newsroom, which supports the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.
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