Free college keeps growing — at the state level


In 2021, Vermont launched a new free college program, the 802 Opportunity grant. The program offered free tuition at the Community College of Vermont for students from families with an annual household income under $50,000.

In the first year, 2,000 students used the scholarship to pay for college. That number increased 10% the next year. Most were first in their families to go to college. 

In other words, the program has been successful, said Joyce Judy, president of CCV. Vermont, she said, has good high school graduation rates but low college-going rates. The latter are not helped by high community college tuition — CCV charges $280 per credit for in-state students. 

Legislators too seem to think the initiative is going well. Last year, they voted to expand eligibility for the scholarship, which now covers those with incomes up to $75,000, or half of all Vermonters, Judy said. 

“We have so many Vermont companies who are in desperate need of highly skilled employees, and we want to make sure Vermonters can get those jobs,” Judy said. “Since COVID came, there’s been this recognition that if we’re going to help all Vermonters operate to their full potential, we really have to figure out how to make it affordable to them.”

It’s a trend happening across the nation. After the defeat of President Joe Biden’s nationwide free community college plan a year ago, some momentum for the idea moved to the state level. Now, more states are jump-starting their own programs, and ones that launched last year are looking at potential expansions. 

A movement with momentum

Take the Michigan Reconnect program. Established by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2021, Reconnect has offered free community college tuition for adults 25 and older with no college credentials. Now, Whitmer has said she would like to lower the age of eligibility to 21. 

“It has opened the door to opportunity for so many working-age adults and we’re even more excited about the possibility of it expanding,” said Brandy Johnson, president of the Michigan Community College Association. “We’ve seen more adult students enroll in our institutions and we think the ‘tuition-free pathway’ tagline has made a difference in helping adults see that these programs are where they belong.”

Connecticut already has a free college program, called Pledge to Advance Connecticut, or PACT, that applies to first-time community college students taking at least six credits. But the president of the state’s college and university system has proposed expanding it to all community college students.

In states that don’t have comprehensive free college programs, governors have indicated they are interested. In Massachusetts, newly inaugurated Gov. Maura Healey ran on the idea of MassReconnect, an initiative to mirror Michigan’s and Tennessee’s programs for community college adults. Other Massachusetts lawmakers have proposed their own plans for a free program. 

“We are having many conversations about what we would like for free community college in Massachusetts and the things that would need to be attained to make it sustainable for our schools and our students,” said Sarah Yunits, deputy executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges. 

In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker called for free college tuition for some families in his recent State of the State address, though he has proposed no formal plans.

Federal officials have emphasized the expansion and growth of free programs at the state level. Nasser Paydar, who serves as the assistant secretary of postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education, called on states to work on tuition-free community college at a recent conference. 

A powerful word: free

Despite growth in recent years, free college programs have been part of the education landscape in some form for a while, starting with merit-based programs in the 1990s, said Michelle Miller-Adams, senior researcher at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. 

Local free college programs based in cities followed in the mid-2000s, with the first statewide program then launching in Tennessee in 2014. 


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