States consider $0 community college tuition

Worried about a shortage of skilled workers, some states are considering free community college tuition, reports NPR.

In Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam wants to use lottery money to create a free community college program for high school graduates. The state wants 55 percent of Tennesseans to have a college degree by 2025, up from 32 percent now.

In Oregon, a state commission will look at whether free tuition is feasible.

However, Oregon and Tennessee legislators aren’t sure that middle-class students should pay nothing. A Mississippi bill passed the state House, but then failed in the Senate.

“I think everybody agrees that with a high school education by itself, there is no path to the middle class,” said State Sen. Mark Hass, who is leading the no-tuition effort in Oregon. “There is only one path, and it leads to poverty. And poverty is very expensive.”

Hass said free community college and increasing the number of students who earn college credit while in high school are keys to addressing a “crisis” in education debt. Taxpayers will ultimately benefit, he said, because it’s cheaper to send someone to community college than to have him or her in the social safety net.

Nationwide, the average annual cost of community college tuition is about $3,300, not counting books and fees. 

California’s community colleges were free until the mid-1980s. (Even now, students don’t pay “tuition.” They pay “fees.”)

“What is exciting to us about the idea is that it signals that the state understands there needs to be significant reinvestment in community colleges in some way, shape or form,” said Mary Spilde, the president of Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore., where in-state students pay $93 per credit hour. Back in 1969-70, baby boomers paid $6 per credit hour — about $37 in today’s money, adjusted for inflation.

Tennessee and Oregon may adopt the “last-dollar in” model: The state would fund tuition not covered by other forms of aid, such as Pell Grants. That means state money would pay primarily for middle-class families, said Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas. “And is that your best use of dollars within the public interest?”

Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said students are more likely to be successful if they have “skin in the game” and pay something toward their education.

Alternative diploma limits options

Mississippi’s special education students must pass regular courses and four exams to earn a high school diploma. Many settle for an “occupational” diploma or a certificate of completion. But the occupational diploma limits college and job training options,  write Jackie Mader and Sarah Butrymowicz on the Hechinger Report

In the 12 years since the “occupational track,’’ was developed, Mississippi’s 15 community college have wavered on admitting alternate diploma graduates into academic tracks. Susan Molesworth, director of special education for the Long Beach School District, said the occupational diploma was never meant to be a college prep curriculum.

“Some of the [occupational diploma] kids that were coming into junior colleges weren’t able to do it,” Molesworth said. “They were failing.”

Only seven of the state’s community colleges accept alternate diploma students into academic programs.

Hinds Community College, which runs five campuses, decided in December to to stop accepting  the occupational diploma for academic classes. Occupational grads can enroll only in certain career programs, such as office systems technology and meat merchandising.

Pearl River Community College does not accept occupational diplomas for financial reasons, said Scott Alsobrooks, vice president for economic and community development. The federal government doesn’t view the “occupational diploma’’ as equivalent to the GED or a high school diploma, so students can’t get federal grants or student loans. 


Special ed students meet much lower academic expectations in high school, report Mader and Butrymowicz. At Brandon High School, students on the occupational track might take Employment English, Job Skills Math, Life Skills Science and Career Preparation.

A ninth grader is taught to “distinguish between odd and even numbers” and “determine, count, and make change in solving problems” in math.

In a 12th-grade occupational math class, seniors were reviewing vocabulary words about checks, such as “memo line” and “void.”

Still, only 28 percent of special ed students earn an occupational diploma, while 61 percent leave with a certificate of completion. The certificate, designed for severely disabled students, doesn’t qualify students for anything.

If students can’t meet academic standards in high school, it’s no surprise they can’t meet academic standards in college. But the “occupational” diploma should prepare students for success in job training programs.

States eye free community college tuition

Community college tuition could be free to high school graduates in Tennessee, Mississippi and Oregon.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam proposed making two years of a community or technical college education free in his State of the State address. “Net cost to the state, zero. Net impact on our future, priceless.”

“We just needed to change the culture of expectations in our state,” the governor told the New York Times. “College is not for everybody, but it has to be for a lot more people than it’s been in the past if we’re going to have a competitive work force.”

Community college costs only $3,800 a year in Tennessee, just above the national average. With help from Pell Grants, most students pay little or nothing in tuition and fees. However eliminating tuition would enable lower-income students to use their Pell aid to pay for books, supplies, transportation and living expenses.

The “Tennessee Promise” will have a psychological impact, Haslam predicted. Many people don’t realize community and technical colleges are affordable. “If we can go to people and say, ‘This is totally free,’ that gets their attention.”

The plan would cover Tennessee’s 13 community colleges, which grant academic degrees, and 27 technical colleges, which provide job training. The technical system is nationally known for high success rates.

The net cost to the state isn’t really zero, but Haslam estimated diverting lottery revenue would cover the $34 million a year.

Mr. Haslam also called for Tennessee’s public colleges to make a new effort to recruit the state’s nearly one million adults who have some college credits but ended their educations without earning degrees or professional certificates. And he proposed expanding a program that gives particular help to struggling high school students so they can go to college without needing remedial classes that do not earn college credit; studies have shown that students who take remedial courses are far less likely to graduate.

High school graduates in Mississippi could attend community college for free for two years under a bill being considered in the Legislature, reports the Clarion-Ledger. Scholarships would be available to students younger than 21 who enroll full-time and maintain a 2.5 grade point average.

The idea started at Meridian Community College, which began offering what it calls a “tuition guarantee” in fall 1996, using privately donated money.

Oregon legislators also may study whether it’s feasible to let high school graduates attend community college for free. “If we get this right, I think we can unleash a tremendous amount of motivation within these young people, giving them the motivation to stay in school, to get a certificate, to achieve that additional learning that can make a difference in terms of their economic success,” Gov. John Kitzhaber told the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee.

 whether free community colleges is feasible.

High schools may pay for college remediation

When high school graduates need remedial classes in college, who pays? Mississippi and Maine may hold school districts responsible for the costs of teaching basic skills in community colleges, notes the Hechinger Report.

In Mississippi, more than 40 percent of community college students need remediation. Fifty percent take developmental classes at Maine community colleges.

New Hampshire, Missouri, and Oregon legislators have considered similar proposals over the last five years, but bills haven’t gotten far.

“High school students, when they get a diploma . . . they ought to be able to go to college,” said Mississippi Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo. “They should not have remediation.”

Nationwide, as many as 70 percent of new community college students are placed in remedial courses, Hechinger reports.

College remediation has long been a subject of debate: It costs the states nearly $4 billion annually, and opponents say remedial courses don’t even prepare students for college level work. In Mississippi, remedial courses currently cost the same as regular classes based on credit hour, so students must foot the bill for the extra classes. Fewer than 10 percent of these students end up graduating from community colleges within three years, according to Complete College America.

These arguments have prompted more than 20 states to cut funding for remedial education. Some community colleges have started to restrict admission to students who have at least a seventh-grade proficiency level, directing them to local adult basic education classes and saving on remediation costs.

High schools and community colleges need to work together on aligning curriculum, says Kay McClenny, the director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. “Ultimately, what we need to have is not finger pointing and rock throwing across the fence of various segments of education, but really much better collaboration,” she said.

High schools are under heavy pressure to raise graduation rates. If every graduate has to be ready for college work . . . It’s not a realistic expectation. Perhaps the introduction of new, higher standards will force states to adopt a college-ready diploma and a less-rigorous diploma.

Mississippi can’t meet demand for nursing classes

Despite a statewide shortage of nurses, Mississippi’s community colleges can’t hire enough instructors to meet the demand for training, reports the Clarion Ledger.

At East Central Community College in Decatur, for example, 485 qualified applicants submitted bids for this fall’s associate’s degree class, and the school accepted 72.

Itawamba Community College received 850 applications and accepted 150, and at Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia, 456 applied with 156 admissions.

The problem may worsen as faculty members retire. Teaching undergraduate nursing requires a master’s degree, yet doesn’t pay much more than nurses can earn with an associate degree. Most of the state’s nurses earn two-year degrees, find jobs and see no need to complete a bachelor’s degree.

CCs cut sports teams

Desperate to balance their budgets, some community colleges are cutting sports teams, reports Inside Higher Ed. But colleges are reluctant to cut the most popular and costly sports, such as football, basketball, baseball and women’s softball.

Three Mississippi colleges are cutting at least one sport:  soccer at East Mississippi Community College; golf and tennis at Pearl River Community College; golf, tennis and track at Southwest Mississippi Community College.

“Mississippi has a very storied and prestigious position in community and junior college football, probably more so than any other state,” said (James) Southward, who was for 15 years a football coach at Mississippi Delta Community College. “Our football, basketball, baseball and women’s softball teams are very costly to operate, but they’re also the sports that bring students onto campus. It’s kind of a pay-back situation. The feeling among most of our presidents is that if they start cutting out some of these major sports, they would see a major drop in enrollment. If that happens, it’s as bad as being cut in funding.”

The state’s community colleges have adopted a shorter athletic season to save money.

In upstate New York, Erie Community College cut eight teams – men’s and women’s golf, cross-country, track and field, and indoor track — but cut costs by only $40,000 a year. Football was saved.

However, some colleges have decided football is just too expensive. North Iowa Community College dropped football to save $250,000.

Sports teams attract young students looking for a traditional college experience,  college officials believe.

Some community college teams have given athletes a shot at a scholarship to a four-year institution or a direct trip to the pros, reports Community College Times.

Nine baseball players from College of Southern Nevada were drafted this year, including 17-year-old Bryce Harper, a first-round draft pick.

Private donations fund the college’s two teams, men’s baseball and women’s softball.