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President Biden proposes free community college. What could it mean for North Carolina?

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President Joe Biden’s proposed American Families Plan calls for $109 billion for community colleges to allow all students to attend for free. While there’s no guarantee the plan will get through a narrowly divided Congress, what would this mean for North Carolina and our students if it does?

Free college programs — often referred to as promise programs — have spread nationally in recent years. These programs can take many forms, but the core premise is to make tuition free for students.

Many promise programs require students to first fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to identify their eligibility for other financial aid before the program will pay out what is commonly referred to as the “last dollar” to cover any remaining tuition costs. To put it plainly, last-dollar programs close the gap between financial aid the student would have already received and their actual tuition costs.

On the other hand, some promise programs are “first dollar” efforts. Those programs ensure students’ tuition is covered regardless of other financial aid they may or may not receive — and they do not require the FAFSA to be completed.

The UNC System, for example, has piloted a type of promise program at Elizabeth City State University, UNC-Pembroke, and Western Carolina University that lowers tuition costs to $500 for qualifying students.

North Carolina does not have a statewide community college promise program, but many individual colleges have some type of promise program through their counties and foundations.

As of November 2o20, 19 of North Carolina’s 58 community colleges had some variation of a promise program, each with its own requirements. Some have minimum GPA requirements, others require students to have participated in the Career and College Promise Program, and some require students to live within the service area of the college.

Central Carolina Community College’s (CCCC) promise program provides two years of free tuition for students who are residents of its service area and have completed at least four Career and College Promise courses, or the equivalent of 12 hours. Students must also complete the FAFSA.

“Free community college for first-time college students and workers needing to enhance their skills to qualify for the jobs of today and tomorrow could be an incredible game-changer in support of economic mobility,” said CCCC President Lisa Chapman. “North Carolina’s continued economic success is dependent on a more inclusive and skilled workforce — making postsecondary education affordable for everyone increases the probability of developing and sustaining the talent pipeline our employers need.”

Simply put, this plan, if passed, could lead to all students being able to attend community college at one of the state’s 58 colleges tuition-free once they fill out the FAFSA.

What could our state learn from the Tennessee example?

Tennessee might be the highest-profile example of a statewide promise program for community colleges in recent years.

In 2014, Tennessee Promise launched as a key strategy for a statewide effort to bolster attainment through the “Drive to 55” campaign. Tennessee Promise is a last-dollar program designed to eliminate tuition and fees for students after FAFSA dollars are applied.

What made Tennessee Promise unique at the time was that it was not tied to GPA — or even income level — but rather to high school graduation.

Mike Krause, former head of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said the initial instinct was to reshape the way people thought about college itself.

For years, our message to students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, has been very unclear. We have asked them to negotiate incredible barriers like the FAFSA and hoped they would intuitively know that the Pell Grant would pay for their costs.

Mike Krause, former head of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission

Tennessee Promise initially projected that 8,000 students would apply, but more than 33,000 did. Most important, Krause said, more than 8,000 additional low-income students enrolled in higher education over the next three years than in the previous three years.

Ironically, many of the low-income students probably would have been able to attend community college for free with federal aid, but many did not realize that before the launch of the program, Krause said.

When we launched Tennessee Promise, our goal was to simplify the message down to one word: free. We hoped that by doing so, we would bring a sense of clarity that ultimately made college an inevitable thought in students’ minds.

Mike Krause, former head of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission

What would this mean for North Carolina’s 58 community colleges?

“Given our experience in Tennessee, I strongly believe this [proposal] would bring students to the higher education table that may have previously counted themselves out,” Krause said. “As a result, community colleges should definitely be prepared for an influx of students [if the plan is passed].”

Krause also said he hopes the final American Families Plan, if passed, would provide incentives for transfer pathways for community college students to their regional universities. If connected, community colleges will serve what he calls an “important college access point for low- and moderate-income students to complete a four-year degree.”

The plan goes beyond free college

It is important to note the American Families Plan goes beyond free college.

According to the White House, the plan would provide other investments in higher education as well:

  • Increase the Pell Grant award by approximately $1,400.
  • Invest $39 billion for two years of subsidized tuition for students from families earning less than $125,000 enrolled in a four-year HBCU, tribally controlled university, and/or minority-serving institution.
  • Invest $62 billion for a program to “invest in completion and retention activities at colleges and universities that serve high numbers of low-income students, particularly community colleges. States, territories, and Tribes will receive grants to provide funding to colleges that adopt innovative, proven solutions for student success, including wraparound services ranging from child care and mental health services to faculty and peer mentoring; emergency basic needs grants; practices that recruit and retain diverse faculty; transfer agreements between colleges; and evidence-based remediation programs.”

Krause pointed out the $62 billion dollar grant program focused on completion and retention would build off of what he views as a key element of Tennessee Promise.

“The additional funding for student success is also consistent with the approach we launched with Tennessee Promise,” Krause said, “which in addition to financial aid included mentorship and college coaching. It’s an important reminder that financial aid is only one component of the student success continuum.”

But, what would this all mean for North Carolina?

The conversation around free community college in North Carolina was already unfolding before Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night.

Wilkes Community College recently became the 20th community college in North Carolina to have a college promise program with the launch of the Wilkes Community College Education Promise.

According to the Wilkes Journal Patriot, “Requirements for the initial award include completing the FAFSA, completing a single scholarship application, earning a high school grade point average of at least 2.0, living in the WCC service area (Wilkes, Ashe or Alleghany counties), enrolling at WCC within an academic year after high school, enrolling in at least 12 credit hours and selecting a certificate, diploma or degree program.”

“In the modern era, most living wage jobs require some sort of postsecondary credential,” WCC President Jeff Cox said. “I fully support any push to make community college more accessible. Obviously, it might be a heavy lift to get that passed in Congress. What I do know is, starting this fall, all qualifying students in Wilkes, Ashe, and Alleghany will have access to two years of community college tuition-free at Wilkes Community College through the new WCC Education Promise program we are launching this year.”

The American Families Plan will face opposition in Congress. North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis issued a statement last night saying, “(Biden) has rejected bipartisanship and embraced left-wing policies to tax, spend, and regulate our country into oblivion. Some of the liberal proposals he mentioned tonight are even a bridge too far for some of my Democratic colleagues.”

As with every piece of legislation, it is hard to predict the final form the bill will take if passed. Every state has different tuition rates, for example, so it is likely the plan will require states to waive tuition.

According to reporting from The New York Times, “The Biden administration is expected to endorse a different bill that was introduced Monday by the Democratic chairs of the Senate and House education committees. It would give states 75 percent of the average community college tuition nationwide, in exchange for a match equal to 25 percent of the same. High-tuition and low-tuition states would be treated equally.”

Education advocates, postsecondary leaders, and others will certainly make their voices heard on the final version of the legislation.

Durham Technical Community College President J.B. Buxton told EducationNC, “It is good to see community college affordability front and center on the national agenda. In whatever emerges in the final package, it is important that it reflects a ‘first dollar’ scholarship approach so that it targets students and families with the greatest need.”

It’s also important the legislation maintain the support for non-academic support services and funding for best practices on completion. Ultimately, the goal is not affordability, it’s for students to succeed in college and find good jobs.

J.B. Buxton, Durham Tech president

Prominent North Carolinians had weighed in on behalf of free community college prior to Biden’s proposal.

Don Flow, chairman and chief executive officer of Flow Automotive Companies in Winston-Salem and a myFutureNC Commissioner, wrote an editorial before the 2021 legislative session calling for free community college in the state.

“A two-year technical degree guarantees a person access to a middle-class, stable life,” Flow wrote. “The number of job openings in technical fields in North Carolina is in the tens of thousands. Unfortunately, there are not qualified people to fill these jobs… North Carolina needs to extend public education to grade 14 for technical education through our Community College System. This will create an explosion in economic mobility and growth and create jobs for 20-22-year-olds all over the state: technicians, welders, plumbers, electricians, health care workers, software design, construction, etc… This will break the cycle of poverty in this state by opening up opportunities in our rural communities and in our cities.”

EdNC will follow the progress of the American Families Plan as it proceeds through Congress in our Awake58 newsletter. We encourage you to sign up for the newsletter below. If you have thoughts on free college, please text COLLEGE to 73224 to share them.

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the director of growth for EducationNC.