‘Free’ Community College Is a Reality in Some States

Published December 29, 2016

Several states have begun to provide students with access to tuition-free college, but the new programs have yet to show they help truly needy students in a substantial way or do anything to reduce overall tuition costs.

Minnesota, Oregon, and Tennessee have programs allowing qualified students to avoid tuition for their first two years of college. Tennessee pioneered free community college in 2014. Its program allows graduating high school seniors to apply for free college under the “Tennessee Promise.” The program pays “last dollar,” meaning the state pays remaining tuition costs after other sources of funding, such as federal Pell grants (but not loans), are considered. The program also includes special mentoring to help students obtain the scholarships.

Minnesota launched a $5 million pilot program in 2016 to offer free college instruction to 1,400 students at 30 community and technical colleges.

About 6,000 high school seniors took advantage of the “Oregon Promise” program in 2016, attending community college for $50 per term.

High Tuition Remains

Mary Clare Reim, a research associate in education policy at The Heritage Foundation, says providing free college to some students does nothing to reduce market-wide high and rising tuition prices.

“States that have adopted free community college programs fail to recognize the drivers of high college tuition,” Reim said. “Research from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York [in 2015] found that greater dependence on federal aid encourages colleges and universities to raise their tuition prices. Solutions such as free community college or debt-free public college do nothing to address this driver of tuition increases.”

‘Misusing Scarce Resources’

Stephanie Keaveney, a policy associate at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, says free and reduced-price tuition programs don’t benefit those who need them most.

“The problem with programs like the Tennessee Promise is that they disproportionately benefit wealthier students by filling in the gap after federal and state aid has been applied,” Keaveney said. “These middle- and upper-middle-class students are already much more likely to attend and succeed in college, so it may be that the state is misusing scarce resources to benefit an already well-off group.”

Education Problems Still Exist

Evidence suggests even without free-tuition programs, low-income students in many states can obtain a community college education at a low cost because of already low tuition rates, federal Pell grants providing qualifying students with subsidies for college they do not have to repay, and other support. The average community college tuition for in-district students was $3,201 in 2013–14, and the average Pell grant that year was $3,634.

Reim says a larger problem than students being unable to afford community colleges is only about 20 percent of all community college students obtain their degrees within three years.

“It is not clear that removing any financial stake students may have in their education would encourage students to complete at higher rates,” Reim said.

J.E. Stone, a professor of education at East Tennessee State University and president of the Education Consumers Foundation, says making college more accessible tends to attract more unqualified students.

“My problem is with the policy aim of simply drawing more students into community colleges when they are already flooded with applicants who are marginally or ill-qualified,” Stone said. “It lends support to the popular fiction that a year or two of community college can make up for the learning deficiencies cumulated over the previous 12-plus years.” 

Jane S. Shaw ([email protected]) writes from Raleigh, North Carolina.


Matthew Denhart and Richard Vedder, Ten Principles of Higher Education Reform, The Heartland Institute, March 10, 2011: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/ten-principles-of-higher-education-reform