As the price of attending four-year universities continues to climb out of reach for many Americans, California has expanded its California College Promise program to grant qualifying students two years of free community college. Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed legislation allocating $42.6 million of the state budget to support the program, which aims to encourage college-ready, low-income students to pursue additional education.

Previously, the California College Promise program only made tuition free for the first year. California's community colleges serve about 2.1 million students, or roughly one-quarter of community college students in the nation. The program will support approximately 33,000 students for the 2019-2020 academic year, and only first-time students enrolled full time are eligible.

Free Community College Around the Country

California's push to make community college free is part of a national trend that has seen 24 states across the country offer tuition-free college programs. An increasing number of states, including Maryland, Rhode Island, Tennessee, New York, and Oregon, are waiving tuition for community colleges.

Free Community College States


Maryland

Signed in 2018, Maryland's bill grants scholarships to low- and middle- income students. The Community College Promise Scholarship covers tuition at 16 of the state's community colleges.

Rhode Island

Approved in 2017, the Rhode Island Promise Scholarship allows high school graduates to attend Rhode Island Community College without paying tuition and fees. Students must maintain a 2.5 GPA and be enrolled full time, and are required to live, work, or continue their studies in the state after graduation.

Tennessee

The Tennessee Promise accepts all students in Tennessee who don't already have an associate or bachelor's degree. It provides free tuition at the state's community colleges and technical schools.

New York

New York became the first state to make tuition free for both two- and four-year colleges in April 2017. The Excelsior Scholarship provides recipients with tuition-free enrollment at a State University or City University of New York school.

Oregon

The Oregon Promise grant covers most of the community college tuition for recent high school graduates and GED recipients. Students must be state residents for at least a year before applying. They must also be enrolled at least part time with a minimum 2.5 high school GPA. Adults returning to school are not eligible.

In one of the most ambitious proposals to date, New Mexico has announced a plan to grant residents tuition-free enrollment at any of the state's 29 public colleges and universities. The program, called the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, would apply to all students, regardless of household income. If the plan is approved by the state's Democratic-controlled legislature, officials estimate it would help 55,000 students attend college each year.

New Mexico officials estimate the plan would have an annual cost between $25 and $35 million and would be funded by the state's general fund, which has recently seen revenue boosts from oil production in the Permian Basin.

Should Community College Be Free?

While tuition-free community college does increase enrollment, some argue that other policies foster better educational outcomes. For example, a new study by the Brookings Institution argues that providing free community college to students does not lead to increased four-year graduation rates.

The authors argue that the most effective ways to raise four-year graduation rates are to increase per-student instructional spending at public institutions and eliminate tuition and fees at four-year colleges for low-income students. The study uses economic data from past higher education studies and enrollment and degree completion data from the College Board-National Student Clearinghouse dataset.

The research demonstrates that enrollment at four-year colleges increased by 3.1% if tuition and fees were eliminated for students from families earning less than $60,000 annually. It also projected that removing 10% of the per-student spending gap between four-year public and private institutions while increasing per-student spending by 10% at community colleges would raise bachelor's degree completion rates by 1.1%.

While many see community college as a stepping stone to a four-year degree, that may not be the point of tuition-free community college. As Inside Higher Ed reports, proponents of these programs argue that they increase the likelihood of lower-income Americans enrolling in college, regardless of whether they pursue two- or four-year degrees.

Why States Are Making Community College Tuition-Free

The push for tuition-free community college is a response to the growing cost of attending college. Between 1989 and 2016, the cost to attend college increased nearly eight times faster than real wages. The cost of a four-year degree in 1989 was $26,902, or $52,892 after adjusting for inflation. The cost of the same four-year degree in 2016 was $104,480.

Costs have accelerated over the last decade. The average tuition and fees at private four-year schools rose 26%, and four-year public schools jumped 35% during that same time. This has made college affordability a major policy issue in the 2020 presidential race. Several democratic presidential candidates have shared policy proposals to forgive student loan debt, reduce the cost of tuition at universities, or eliminate tuition entirely.

Back in California, this crisis is what Newsom hopes to address by providing tuition-free community college.

"No one can argue with the fact that the full cost of attending institutions of higher learning is still far too high — both in California and across the country," Newsom said in a press release. "But by offering two years of community college tuition-free, California is taking a meaningful step toward chipping away at the cost of higher learning for students and their families."