Community colleges recoup students with free tuition

Community colleges across the country have suffered staggering enrollment losses during the pandemic. But some campus leaders say free college programs could provide the boost institutions need to reverse the declines. Several states, as well as individual colleges, have launched tuition-free programs in the past two years to cover tuition not covered by federal financial aid or other tuition assistance programs. beak

Some colleges launching tuition-free programs aim to attract recent high school graduates, whose enrollment rates immediately after high school fell 6.8% in 2020 from the previous year, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Only 2% of students who graduated from high school that year, but did not subsequently enroll, started college the following year in fall 2021. Other campuses are looking to re-engage adult learners over the age of 25 who may have dropped out to cope with increased work and family responsibilities. during the pandemic.

The results of some of these programs, commonly referred to as promise programs, leave administrators hopeful for the upcoming fall semester. Although enrollment numbers are preliminary, the Promise programs have resulted in a surge of applications at some community colleges at a time when those institutions are eager to recoup their losses and fill local labor shortages with new graduates.

“A substantial shift towards the positive”

“The psychological power of the word ‘free’ cannot be underestimated,” said Janet M. Sortor, vice president and director of studies at Maine Community College System.

She is optimistic about the enrollment outlook for this fall, which they attribute to a new free college program launched statewide earlier this summer. According to data from the system, the total number of applications to the seven community colleges in the system increased by 11%, at the end of July, compared to the previous year. New applicants to the system also increased by around 13%.

The program covers two years of Maine community college tuition for anyone who has graduated or is due to graduate from high school in 2020, 2021, 2022, or 2023, including current community college students and students who have earned a GED.

Like community colleges nationwide, the system has seen significant declines during the pandemic. The number of students increased from 11,465 to 9,996 system-wide between fall 2019 and fall 2021.

But the system seems to be taking a turn. While enrollment numbers for this coming fall are still changing, they are on an upward trajectory. So far, new student enrollment is up 15.8% over last year, and nearly 77% of these newly enrolled students are Free University Program eligible individuals. Total registrations across the system increased by 4.4%, and system leaders expect that figure to continue to grow. At the end of July, 10,431 students were registered for fall 2022.

The increase in new student enrollments in particular gives Sortor hope that the system can recover from pandemic-related enrollment losses, which it says will mean greater upward mobility for more residents of the Maine.

“‘Post-secondary degrees can make a huge difference in people’s lives, in terms of future income, job opportunities,’ she said. ‘…It’s our mission, to help change people’s lives and provide them with a better future. Getting their attention with that word ‘free’…it’s good for Maine.”

Joseph L. Cassidy, president of Southern Maine Community College, doesn’t expect the program to bring his institution back to pre-pandemic enrollment levels this fall, but he thinks it’s helping.

He said the nearly 20% decline in enrollment from fall 2019 to spring 2022 was a blow to the college. The healthy labor market filled with well-paying jobs has also made it harder to attract older students, he added.

Still, Cassidy noted that interest in the college by traditional-aged students has grown significantly since the program’s launch.

New college applications are up about 17% from last year, Cassidy said. The total number of registrations has only increased by 4.4% so far, but he expects this percentage to increase in the coming weeks.

He and other Maine community college presidents “dreamed of double-digit increases” in enrollment when the tuition-free program was announced, he added. “But really, my hope was that we would see a substantial turn to the positive, that we would actually see noticeable and measurable growth in enrollment, and that came to fruition.”

Indian River State College, a two-year institution in Florida, has also been successful in attracting potential students fresh out of high school with a pilot program of promise. The program, announced this spring and funded by the college’s private foundation, covers tuition for 2022 graduates of public and public charter high schools in four neighboring counties. It requires students to enroll in college full-time beginning in the fall and remain enrolled until they graduate with an associate degree.

Elizabeth Gaskin, vice president of student success at Indian River State, said administrators are looking to make the program “as open as possible” to reach not just low-income students, but also “low-income” students. limited” from middle-income families who struggle to afford college. .

Gaskin declined to provide enrollment figures, as enrollment is still ongoing, but she said enrollment has “significantly” increased from last year and she hopes the promised program will “stop hemorrhage”.

About 30% of local public high school graduates enrolled at Indian River State College before the pandemic, but that figure dropped to 23% in the fall of 2020-21.

Gaskin said the primary goal of the Promise program was to return to pre-pandemic student enrollment rates at local public high schools. This goal seems to have been achieved, but she is waiting to celebrate the start of the semester.

“Before I get too, too excited, I want to make sure they show up for us in that first week of class,” she said.

Acquire and retain students

Morley Winograd, President and CEO of the Free Tuition Campaign, said the successes are in line with national trends. He pointed to a study, published in a 2020 research compendium by the American Educational Research Association, that found colleges with promising programs had a 22% increase in enrollment among first-time full-time students. on average since the programs were implemented, compared to neighboring colleges without these programs.

He also cited the Michigan Reconnect program as another example of a promising program in the age of the pandemic that has caused a flood of community college enrollment. The program launched last February and allows adults without a college degree to attend their local community colleges around the state tuition-free. Futures for Frontliners, a similar program for essential workers at the height of the pandemic, also saw a surge in applicants until the program stopped accepting new applications in December 2020.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced last week that, by the end of July, Michigan Reconnect alone had accepted at least 100,000 Michigan residents.

Winograd believes the key to a promising program that drives enrollment is minimal restrictions and a simple message: “Tuition is free. Now please register.”

“When you give the impression that aid is not guaranteed, it has almost no effect on schooling,” he added.

Stacey Obi, vice president of strategic innovation at Spartanburg Community College in South Carolina, said that to create an effective pledge program, “you need to understand…who are the students you serve? he ?”

“We know within our community that there is such a large population of students who have a college education but no degree, so what we needed to focus on was how to develop a campaign to go after that. to these students and tell them that now is the time, that with this free tuition opportunity, you can make it happen,” she said.

Spartanburg used federal COVID-19 relief funds to launch a program last year offering free tuition to prospective students living or working full-time in South Carolina taking courses totaling at least six credits. Obi said the college has intentionally tried to appeal to older adults by emphasizing flexibility in the college’s online programming for learners who work on bulletin boards and in direct mail, among other strategies. marketing.

The college enrolled 6,097 students last fall, an increase of 32% over the previous year, and the number of adult learners over the age of 24 increased by 66%. Not only has Spartanburg regained its enrollment losses, but it has significantly exceeded its pre-pandemic enrollment of 4,633 students in the fall of 2019. As the program enters its second year, enrollment is up 7% to now compared to the same time last year, though campus officials stressed it’s too early to tell what the final tally might be.

A similar opportunity is now available statewide. Governor Henry McMaster also launched a program in 2022 to cover tuition and fees for 15,000 students at vocational and technical schools in South Carolina.

“When a [institution] fact, now everyone around us wants to be free,” Obi said.

She and other campus leaders stressed, however, that enrollment is only half the battle — institutions need to be able to ensure that students keep coming, staying and graduating.

“While free tuition was an amazing campaign, and it really woke up the ears and got the students interested…what we did after that… [with] our programming and our support there is what keeps people coming.”


Cassidy of Southern Maine Community College said the college has hired four free college freshman counselors to contact them periodically throughout each semester and “keep a hand on their shoulder, figuratively, to guide them through this particular first year.”

“Because we bring different children to school who might not have come otherwise, we anticipate that there will be many of these children who will have higher needs in terms of academic support,” he said. declared. “We’re really working to make sure we don’t just bring them here, that’s a really good start, but then we have to make sure they’re successful.”

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