4 Principles for a Free Community College Program That Works for All

Community college graduation ceremony for associate degrees in El Paso, Texas.

Over the last several 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 an on-ramp to postsecondary education for millions of students, especially students of color.

New Jersey and Connecticut are currently considering their own free community college legislation. Legislators there should look to how other states have implemented similar legislation in the past and build on the successes of current state programs. But policymakers must also ensure their proposals are not overly restrictive or based on inaccurate assumptions about students. To that end, policymakers in all states should consider the following four key principles in 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 also work in order to make financial ends meet. Currently, free community college plans commonly require students to meet credit hour or age requirements in order to receive free community college benefits. Reimagining these policies could make community college affordable and accessible for more students.

Some states have imposed requirements that students take 15 credit hours a term in order to receive free community college benefits. While encouraging completion is admirable, and all things being equal it is better to go full-time than part-time, there are many students with completely legitimate reasons for not being able to take this large a course load. For instance, some students have children and must balance the demands of being a full-time parent with going to class. Others may work full-time and are unable to take on additional hours. Instead of requiring all students to take the same course load, institutions can use tools such as advising 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 restrict 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 that recently graduated high school. In the fall of 2015 more than 2 million public community college students—34 percent—were adults aged 25 and older. Expanding current eligibility requirements to include adult learners would help these often-overlooked cohort of students stay enrolled and attain a degree. Furthermore, a plan that serves all students should not exclude undocumented students or formerly incarcerated individuals.

Make programs first-dollar

Most of the current free community college plans, such as those under consideration in New Jersey and Connecticut, are last-dollar programs. This means state funding covers any remaining tuition after subtracting the grant aid a student received. The result is these last-dollar programs typically provide larger benefits to students who do not get any grant support—meaning  wealthier students get a better deal. Lower-income students, on the other hand, don’t receive as large of a benefit because their grant aid might cover the majority or all their tuition.

A first-dollar program takes the reverse approach. In these cases, the state funding kicks in first, without forcing a student to deplete their grant aid. Though more expensive for the state, a first-dollar program allows students to use their grant aid for living expenses such as rent, food, or child care. Providing students this type of flexibility is critical when you consider that many community college students are also parents and one-third of community college students experience food or housing insecurity.

Even if states can’t afford to design a full first-dollar free community college plan, they should consider a program that combines the first-dollar and last-dollar approaches. For example, a state could provide some amount of aid upfront through a first-dollar approach, and then provide additional funds to cover the difference of a student’s financial need after a student has exhausted their other federal aid, as is done through a last-dollar approach.

No heightened GPA requirements

In order to create programs that are more merit based, 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 may seem like a way to ensure students work hard, these types of conditions typically create programs that disproportionately benefit students that do not have as great of a financial need. Often times, low-income students have to work in order to meet their financial obligations and may have other time constraints that inhibit their ability to hit a certain GPA target.

Thankfully, there are better mechanisms than GPA requirements to ensure students in free community college programs are working toward completion. Federal law currently requires institutions to set and enforce satisfactory academic progress (SAP) standards, which include standards such as minimum credit completion requirements and minimum GPA requirements to ensure a student is working toward a degree. States can work with institutions to utilize these requirements on the condition that the institutions routinely evaluate their SAP policies to ensure they are fair and equitable for students.

Recognize tuition alone isn’t enough

College prices can absolutely be a barrier to success. But many students also require advising, counseling, tutoring, and other student support services to successfully complete their degree. As states roll out free community college programs, it is imperative that they direct resources to bolster and expand these student support services. If not, states’ efforts to increase opportunity for their students would fall short, because it would fail to move the needle forward on student degree completion.

Conclusion

Free community college is an important step to ensure that postsecondary education is available to all students. But as these programs grow and more states consider implementing similar proposals, it is critical that states work with local institutions to craft proposals that are inclusive to all, provide comprehensive aid, and are grounded in equity. Too often, students face tremendous challenges to completing their degree based on factors beyond their control. But if state legislators keep in mind the four principles outlined in this column, states can continue to combat inequities in higher education and provide all with a pathway to a degree.

Sara Garcia is a policy analyst on the Postsecondary Education team at the Center for American Progress.