higher education

Free College Is Now a Reality in Nearly 30 States

Source: Bob Dart
  • Even though the plan to make community college tuition-free was stripped from the Build Back Better bill, the number of statewide free-college programs is growing.
  • For some high school students, the possibility of free tuition is paving the way to a degree.

"I didn't want to give up, but it could have come to the point that I couldn't afford school," said Carla Osborn, 31, from Portales, New Mexico.

Osborn is studying nursing at Clovis Community College, located in a very small town near New Mexico's border with Texas. Her husband, Brendon, works as a probation officer, but together they are already paying off his student loans and money is tight.  

Osborn says she and her husband don't need any more debt, and she credits New Mexico's Opportunity Scholarship, which covers full tuition and books, for providing a pathway to her degree.

"I was praying and hoping I would get help somehow and it just kind of worked out," she said.

More from Personal Finance:
3 ways to avoid taking on too much student loan debt
These are the country's 'dream' colleges
Is college really worth it?

Even though the Biden administration's plan to make community college tuition-free for two years was stripped from the federal Build Back Better bill, the push for free college is alive and well in many parts of the country.  

While the White House has turned its focus to extending the student loan payment pause, states have been quietly moving forward with plans to pass legislation of their own to make some college tuition-free.

Most recently, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, signed the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship Act, establishing the most extensive tuition-free scholarship program in the country.

Like New York's Excelsior Scholarship, it covers four years of tuition, including career training certificates, associate and bachelor's degrees.

But New Mexico's Opportunity Scholarship goes a step further by opening up access to returning adult learners, part-time students and immigrants, regardless of their immigration status, in addition to recent high school graduates. (The average age of a college student 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 said. "So nobody is turned away from the opportunity to go to college."

Maine's Gov. Janet Mills, also a Democrat, has proposed a plan to make two years of community college free for recent high school graduates.

If passed, that would bring the total number of statewide free-college programs to 30, which means 60% of states would have free tuition opportunities.

"If we get to 50, it's mission accomplished," said Morley Winograd, president and CEO of the Campaign for Free College Tuition.

Most are "last-dollar" scholarships, meaning students receive a scholarship for the amount of tuition that is not covered by existing state or federal aid. (President Joe Biden recently asked Congress for a $2,175 hike in maximum Pell grants for college students as part of his budget proposal, which would significantly increase the amount of money provided by the federal government, effectively lowering the cost for states to implement free college programs.)

In New Mexico, the state aid is applied first, so federal aid and private scholarships can go toward books, room and board and childcare to help cover the total cost of going to school. 

Even though college enrollment has slid since the beginning of the pandemic, students still want to get a degree, and the sky-high costs often stand in the way, research shows.

The number of undergraduates in college is now down 5.1% compared to two years ago — a loss of nearly 1 million students, according to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center — with the schools serving low- and middle-income students seeing the largest declines.

However, high schoolers are much more likely to go to college if they believe their families can afford it, according to a study of more than 23,000 students by the National Center for Education Statistics.

"If you want people to enroll, tell them it's free," Winograd said.

Not all experts agree that free college is the best way to combat the college affordability crisis.

Critics say lower-income students, through a combination of existing grants and scholarships, already pay little in tuition to state schools, if anything at all.

Further, in most cases the money does not cover fees, books, or room and board, which are all costs that lower-income students struggle with, and diverting funds toward free tuition could come at the expense of other operations on campus, including hiring and retaining faculty and administrators.

In addition, community college is already significantly less expensive. At two-year public schools, tuition and fees averages $3,800 for the 2021-22 school year, according to the College Board. Alternatively, at four-year, in-state public schools, that number is $10,740 and, at four-year private universities, it's $38,070.

Subscribe to CNBC on YouTube.

Copyright CNBC
Contact Us