4 principles for a free community college program that works for everyone

In the past few years, 16 states have implemented free or debt-free community college programs to ease the financial burden on students. These programs recognize that community colleges are a gateway to post-secondary education for millions of students, especially students of color.

New Jersey and Connecticut are currently considering their own free community college legislation. Lawmakers there should consider how other states have implemented similar legislation in the past and build on the successes of current national programs. But policymakers also need to ensure that their proposals are not overly restrictive or based on inaccurate assumptions about students. To this end, policymakers in all states should consider the following four key principles when designing new proposals for a free community college system that works for every student.

Serve all students

An ideal free community college plan should be available to all students, not just traditional full-time students or recent high school graduates. Of all community college students, 61 percent are enrolled part-time; many of these part-time students are also working to make ends meet. Currently, free community college plans generally require students to meet credit hour or age requirements in order to receive free community college benefits. Reinventing these policies could make community colleges affordable and accessible to more students.

Some states have required students to take 15 credit hours per term in order to receive free community college benefits. While encouraging completion is admirable, and all other things being equal, it is better to go full-time than part-time, many students have very legitimate reasons for not being able to keep up with such a load of training. Classes. For example, some students have children and have to balance the demands of being a full-time parent and going to class. Others may work full time and cannot take overtime. Instead of requiring all students to take the same course load, institutions can use tools like counseling to determine which students can take more courses and encourage those who are able to do so.

Age restrictions can also exclude too many students. For example, 11 states currently limit eligibility for their programs to recent high school graduates. Future plans for a free community college system, however, must serve returning adults as well as those who have recently graduated from high school. As of fall 2015, over 2 million public community college students, or 34%, were adults aged 25 and over. Expanding the current eligibility criteria to include adult learners would help this often overlooked cohort of students stay enrolled and graduate. Additionally, a plan that serves all students should not exclude undocumented students or those formerly incarcerated.

Make programs on the first dollar

Most of the current free community college plans, such as the ones under consideration in New Jersey and Connecticut, are programs for the last dollar. This means that state funding covers any tuition fees remaining after subtracting the grant a student received. The bottom line is that these last dollar programs typically offer greater benefits to students who receive no grants, meaning the wealthier students get a better deal. Low-income students, on the other hand, do not receive such a large benefit because their scholarship could cover most or all of their tuition.

A first dollar program takes the reverse approach. In these cases, state funding comes first, without forcing a student to use up their scholarship. Although more costly to the state, a first dollar program allows students to use their scholarship for living expenses such as rent, food, or child care. Providing students with this kind of flexibility is critical when you consider that many community college students are also parents, and one-third of community college students suffer from food or housing insecurity.

Even if states can’t afford to design a comprehensive first dollar free community college plan, they should consider a program that combines the first dollar and last dollar approaches. For example, a state might provide initial aid using a first dollar approach, then provide additional funds to cover the difference in a student’s financial needs after a student has exhausted other federal aid, such as this is done through a final financial aid. dollar approach.

No increased surrogacy requirements

In order to create more merit-based programs, some free community college programs require students to meet minimum GPA requirements in order to access free community college aid programs. While a GPA requirement might seem like a way to ensure that students work hard, these types of conditions typically create programs that disproportionately benefit students who don’t have such a significant financial need. Often, low-income students have to work to meet their financial obligations and may have other time constraints that hamper their ability to achieve a certain GPA goal.

Fortunately, there are better mechanisms than the GPA requirements to ensure that students in free community college programs work toward completion. Federal law currently requires institutions to establish and enforce Standards for Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP), which include standards such as minimum credit requirements and minimum GPA requirements to ensure a student is working. to get a degree. States can work with institutions to use these requirements as long as institutions regularly assess their SAP policies to ensure they are fair and equitable to students.

Recognize that tuition is not enough

University awards can absolutely be a barrier to success. But many students also need guidance, counseling, tutoring, and other student support services to be successful with their degree. As states roll out free community college programs, it is imperative that they dedicate resources to strengthening and expanding these student support services. Otherwise, states ‘efforts to increase opportunities for their students would fail, as this would not advance the students’ graduation needle.


A free community college is an important step in ensuring that post-secondary education is accessible to all students. But as these programs develop and more states consider implementing similar proposals, it is essential that states work with local institutions to develop inclusive proposals for all, provide comprehensive assistance and based on equity. Too often, students face enormous challenges in obtaining their degree due to factors beyond their control. But if state legislators keep the four principles outlined in this column in mind, states can continue to address inequalities in higher education and provide a path to a degree for everyone.

Sara Garcia is a Policy Analyst on the Post-Secondary Education team at the Center for American Progress.

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