In previous economic downturns, more people went to community college looking for better employment opportunities, and enrollment peaked after the Great Recession. But this time around, juggling childcare, the challenges of distance learning, and the changing restrictions on food and hospitality businesses have created too many obstacles.
“If there was a case for a free community college, Covid certainly tore off the bandage and made it clear,” said Karen Stout, president of Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit that works with community colleges to improve access for low-income people. students and students of color.
It is too early to say whether registrations have increased this fall across the country, although it is unlikely that they will fully return to pre-pandemic levels. But many community colleges are making changes to try to bring students back, Stout added.
Some have shortened academic periods and have classes starting at different times, giving students the flexibility they may need when work and babysitting schedules are disrupted. Other colleges aim to strengthen relationships with high schools, a bond that may have weakened last year as schools turned to virtual and blended learning.
Community college is already free in some states
The details of the policy – about who is eligible and what costs are covered – vary widely from state to state, as do the results.
In some cases, the program functions as a scholarship and covers students’ tuition and fees remaining after using other financial aid grants they may have received. This means that a free tuition program may cover a small portion of the actual cost for very low income students who are already eligible for a Pell scholarship equal to the cost of tuition. Yet there is evidence that these programs, like the one in Tennessee, still lead to increased enrollment.
“There is power in the message that tuition is free. Figuring out how much college costs is complicated,” said Laura Perna, professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania.
It’s unclear exactly how a federal free tuition program would work in conjunction with existing state and local programs. But political experts say pairing it with a larger Pell Grant, which can be used to cover additional costs such as accommodation and books, would help low-income students greatly.
What are the chances of this Congress passing?
The final package is expected to be considered as part of reconciliation, meaning it can be passed with 50 Democratic votes in the Senate alone without any Republican support.