The Movement for Tuition-free College in the U.S. is Accelerating

The movement to push for the tuition-free community college in the U.S. was stalled when the Biden administration removed it from the federal Build Back Better bill. However, the movement didn’t lose its momentum, and it is becoming a reality around the country.

Some states have come up with their own plans to realize free tuition for community colleges, regardless of the White House’s plan to extend payment pause for federal student loans.

For instance, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico signed the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship Act, which will be the most comprehensive scholarship program in the nation, once enacted.

Like the Excelsior Scholarship in New York, the program pays for four years of tuition, covering not only associate and bachelor’s degrees but also career training certificates.

Carla Osborn lives with her husband in New Mexico. Although Osborn is currently studying nursing at Clovis Community College, the couple has already started to pay off the husband’s student loans with a tight budget.

She said, “I didn’t want to give up [my education], but it could have come to the point that I couldn’t afford school.” Fortunately, however, she was able to continue her study with the Opportunity Scholarship, which covers the full tuition and books for her.

“I was praying and hoping I would get help somehow and it just kind of worked out,” she added.

New Mexico’s Opportunity Scholarship vastly increased the education accessibility of a wide variety of students, especially those who could not benefit from the government scholarships. In detail, the program allows adult learners returning to study, part-time students, and immigrants regardless of their immigration status to be eligible for the scholarship. The program’s inclusive participant range is especially noteworthy, considering the average age of college students in New Mexico is 26.

“We want to be the national example of how you create a higher education ecosystem system that’s inclusive and accessible,” Higher Education Department Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez continued, “so, nobody is turned away from the opportunity to go to college.”

Meanwhile, in the state of Maine, another distinctive plan to provide affordable education to students has been initiated. Maine’s Gov. Janet Mills has recently proposed a plan to let recent high school graduates study at two-year community colleges for free.

Over 30 states offer affordable or tuition-free education at community colleges. Source: Campaign for Free College Tuition

The total number of statewide free-college programs will reach 30 if the plan passes successfully in Maine, which would mean that 60 percent of the U.S. states have an option for students to take tuition-free college education.

The majority of such state scholarships are “last-dollar,” providing the leftover tuition fees that are not paid by existing state or federal aid. If Congress passes President Joe Biden’s request to increase Pell grants for college students to a maximum of $2,175, the cost for states to carry out free college programs will be considerably lower.

In New Mexico, students can utilize federal aid and other scholarships to cover books, room and board, and childcare, as the state scholarship is applied first towards their tuition.

Despite the impact of the pandemic on college enrollment numbers, the cost of obtaining a degree is still the most prominent reason why students shy away from higher education.

According to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, there was a 5.1 percent of decrease — or about 1 million in headcount — in undergraduate student numbers compared to the pre-pandemic era. The most significant decrease was shown among the colleges providing education mainly to low and middle-income students.

However, a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics on more than 23,000 students showed that high school students are much more likely to enter college if their families can financially afford it.

However, some experts warn about the excessive introduction of tuition-free colleges to increase college affordability. It is argued that students with financial hardships are already paying minimal or no tuition to state schools with assistance provided through the existing grants and scholarships.

Nevertheless, tuition-free college does not mean it will cover the expenses for books, room and board, and other cost of living, which are all pressing burden on students with low income. Thus, allocating significant portion of the limited funding to make the tuition free could lead to decreasing quality of education with a lack of funding for operations on campus and retaining faculties and staff.

Furthermore, according to the College Board, community colleges in the U.S. are already affordable with an average tuition and fees of $3,800 at two-year public schools. For four-year in-state public institutions, it is $10,740 and $38,070 for four-year private colleges.


Read More: Biden’s Plan to Double Pell Grants