If you have to worry about tuition, it’s just about the only thing you worry about. You’ll recognize the following thoughts: Do I really need this class? Is there a cheaper copy of this book on eBay, and if not, can a classmate share their book? Can I pick up another shift at the local restaurant to cover groceries for the week?
For first-generation and low-income students, the anxiety this creates can become overwhelming in a hurry. This barrier to entering college can seem insurmountable.
But it doesn’t have to be like this.
Since 2014, the Tennessee Promise program has allowed students to attend community colleges and trade schools in the state tuition-free. In just two years, the state saw nearly 61,000 of its high school seniors sign up for the program and they aim to enroll more this fall.
Tennessee isn’t alone. Kalamazoo, Michigan, has a similar program. But unlike Tennessee Promise, Kalamazoo Promise is a four-year scholarship program. It even allows students a 10-year period after completing high school to use their Promise money.
Chicago has also experimented in recent years with the tuition-free template, however students are only eligible if they finish high school at Chicago public schools with a GPA of 3.0 or better, unlike Tennessee or Kalamazoo Promise programs.
Most recently, Rhode Island lawmakers approved a bill in August 2017 to make community college free for two years. The state’s Promise Scholarship requires that students be state residents who graduated from high school the spring before getting the scholarship. They must maintain a 2.5 GPA while remaining full-time students to continue getting the money.
Even with Rhode Island’s strict rules for its scholarship, Rhode Island Community College expects to have up to 1,300 students participate in the program this fall.
Of course, there are some potential problems with offering free tuition for community college and trade schools. Some critics are concerned that these programs may divert students from choosing four-year universities, in addition to the stressed caused by taking out loans or working to cover living expenses.
These are legitimate concerns, but at the same time, the saying, “every little bit helps,” applies here. Programs like this may not fully close the gap for low-income students and they may still finish their degrees with debt, but removing tuition from a student’s portfolio of worries can go a long way.
When we have the ability to remove one barrier to opportunity, we should do it.
It’s Not Enough Just to Get to College
It’s not enough for first-time students just to get to college. The financial help they receive from tuition-free programs can only go so far. They need help navigating the pressures that come from academics and the overall college culture.
KIPP knows this problem first hand and established KIPP Through College, a program to help their students during and long after they graduate. By offering mentorship to first-generation students throughout their college careers, they have greatly improved on the college graduation rate of their kids.
Within the last 10 years, 44 percent of kids who graduated eighth grade from KIPP institutions have earned a college degree. That’s 11 percent better than the U.S. as a whole.
Financial help from local and state governments, paired with mentorship, is a powerful mixture that can lead to a lot of educational breakthroughs for kids from families who had never had a chance to obtain degrees.