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This State Just Made Community College Free — For Some People

Some programs are going to charge a few students nothing, while others still have to pay full price.

Photo by Parker Knight/Flickr.

My oldest son is heading into his junior year of high school, which means we’re starting to visit prospective colleges. But, at the same time that he’s exploring various campuses, I, like many parents of high schoolers, am getting sticker shock at the cost. Last week, we paid a visit to my alma mater, Northwestern University, where tuition alone is $52,239 for the 2017-2018 school year. I found myself telling him, “You could always do two years at community college first, and then transfer.”

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]We’re absolutely prepared to serve any student.[/quote]

And maybe we should move to Rhode Island too. Saving some cash is about to get easier there because, on Aug. 3, the state legislature passed a budget proposal that will make community college free for some state residents. This makes Rhode Island the fourth state in the nation (after New York, Tennessee, and Oregon) to subsidize costs for community college.

The program, called Rhode Island Promise, is part of the larger College Promise Campaign that was inspired by President Obama’s 2015 call to make community colleges free for students. Since then, promise initiatives have popped up in about three dozen cities coast to coast. Participants in Rhode Island’s initiative won’t have much choice where they go to school in the state. Because Rhode Island is so tiny, there’s only one option for residents: the Community College of Rhode Island.

“We’re absolutely prepared to serve any student who wants to take classes here,” Patrick Stone, a spokesperson for school, told NBC 10 News.

According to the Rhode Island Promise website, to be eligible this fall, students will need to be “2017 high school graduates (public, private or homeschooled) or GED recipients, who were younger than 19 years old when high school or the GED were completed.” They’ll also need to enroll as full-time students and maintain a 2.5 GPA.

All that sounds fairly reasonable, and those are the stipulations of most promise programs nationwide. But that also makes these programs less useful to Americans than they could be. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, “The average age of a community college student is 29, and two-thirds of community college students attend part-time.”

Indeed, data on the website for the Community College of Rhode Island shows that 70% of students attend the school part-time and 60% are 25 or older. These folks, like most community college students across the country, might work part- or full-time so they can pay for housing, food, and other expenses for themselves or their families. As a result, they’re less likely to take classes on a full-time basis like Rhode Island Promise wants them to.

That’s why, in May, lawmakers in Tennessee signed legislation that will make their program, Tennessee Promise, available to all adults in the state starting in fall 2018. And, in recognition of the demographics of community college students, participants in that program will only need to attend part-time. “We all know that there are many talented and accomplished individuals who never went to college or for some reason or another were not able to complete their degree,” reads the Tennessee Promise website.

That’s not to say that Rhode Island Promise or any of the programs geared toward students just graduating from high school aren’t useful, — because they are. The financial savings they offer is nothing to sneeze at. But if we really want a well-educated population, it seems like following Tennessee’s example is the way to go.

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