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Free tuition movement barely on community college's radar

Community college is already free for many students who are low-income
University Business, May 2016

Community colleges have been in the news during the current election cycle, due to plans by some politicians—including President Obama and Sen. Bernie Sanders—who suggest the federal government should provide free education for any citizen willing to put in the bookwork.

But so far this is just talk for colleges, which have yet to plan for the contingency of becoming a gratis educational option for the populace.

“Certainly community college folks are talking about it, and there’s a whole lot of enthusiasm,” says Melinda Karp, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. “But it hasn’t reached a point where colleges are planning and budgeting for it because I’m not sure people are convinced that the political winds will be supportive.”

Community college is already free for many students who are low-income or who qualify for financial assistance.

“That doesn’t mean price is not important, but you have to make sure that students complete,” she says. “If we invest in making college accessible, we need to also invest in the institutions.”

Moreover, for many of the type of students that community colleges attract, tuition is not the highest cost of pursuing an education, says J. Noah Brown, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Community College Trustees. “There’s childcare, there’s books, there’s transportation, there’s housing and on and on. These are the real financial barriers.”

Brown touts solutions such as keeping textbook costs low by using ebooks, or combining an on-campus childcare service with a degree program in early childhood development. Efforts such as these, he says, help ensure  that students can afford to get to campus to complete their degree.

Another strategy is providing “microgrants”—as low as $200 to $300—to help students with problems such as car repairs or other emergency expenses.

Brown cites Austin Community College, Everett Community College in Washington, and Bunker Hill Community College in Boston as examples of institutions that employ microgrants as a successful but relatively inexpensive way to help their students stay in school.

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