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Colleges offering free tuition this fall are seeing a jump in applications

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Several North Carolina community colleges are offering free tuition for students this fall. Using a combination of federal, state, local, and philanthropic funding, these colleges are guaranteeing free tuition, and in many cases books and fees, for students regardless of financial need.

After statewide community college enrollment declines of 11% last fall, colleges see this as an opportunity to encourage new and returning students to enroll this fall.

“We’re about 10 days into the [free tuition] program now and we’ve had a tremendous response since we announced this,” said Thomas Brooks, executive vice president at Southwestern Community College (SCC). “We’ve had 495 students apply for the program. We have processed 274 FAFSAs (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The same period last year we processed 76 FAFSAs.”

At Forsyth Technical Community College, applications for the fall semester were up 829 compared to the same time last year after announcing their free tuition program, said Forsyth Tech’s director of educational partnerships, Flora Calderón-Steck.

2021 North Carolina high school graduates from low- and middle-income families already qualify for financial assistance at all 58 community colleges, thanks to the Longleaf Commitment Grant. Eligible students can get $700 to $2,800 per year for a total of two years.

Many colleges are going beyond the Longleaf Commitment and offering free tuition to all 2021 North Carolina high school graduates and some are extending that offer to all North Carolina residents, regardless of age.

SCC Promise offers free tuition for new and continuing students who are North Carolina residents, enroll in a minimum of six credit hours, and complete the 2021-22 FAFSA.

“It’s working and providing access to that group of students who weren’t qualifying in any other way for financial assistance, or in some cases are qualifying for FAFSA but they just weren’t aware or had not completed a FAFSA before,” said Brooks. “This has been a catalyst to get them to apply and to see what aid is available to them.”

Forsyth Tech’s Class of 2021 College Commitment offers free tuition, books, and fees for any 2021 North Carolina high school graduate. What sets this apart is the fact that it applies to undocumented and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students, two groups that do not qualify for the Longleaf Commitment Grant, Pell Grant, or other federal financial aid.

“We’re very excited to be able to offer this opportunity for all 2021 high school graduates,” said Calderón-Steck. “We have gone beyond [the Longleaf Commitment] using federal money and local money to be able to provide free tuition, fees, and textbooks for all regardless of financial need and regardless of residency.”

All of these are “last-dollar” scholarships, meaning the colleges exhaust all available funding and then cover whatever cost is left. In many cases, students’ tuition is completely covered by federal aid, including the Pell Grant, and state aid from the Longleaf Commitment Grant. For students who do not qualify for either of those, colleges are using local philanthropic dollars as well as federal COVID-19 relief funding.

Looking at their 2019 enrollment data, Brooks said they estimated about 25% of SCC students would not qualify for federal or state aid and have to pay out of pocket. SCC is using federal COVID-19 relief funding to cover tuition and fees for those students this year.

“I saw a message from a student yesterday who had taken classes here 20 years ago, did not do very well, had always wanted to come back, and was concerned about what that did for their financial aid, and they were just very grateful to be able to come back,” said Brooks.

Other colleges offering free tuition for new and/or returning students include Haywood Community College, Beaufort County Community College, Martin Community College, and Roanoke-Chowan Community College.

Is your community college offering free tuition for students this year? Email Molly Osborne at mosborne@ednc.org to let us know.

Molly Osborne

Molly Osborne is the director of news and policy for EducationNC.