Students Flock to Free College Programs

States that have created scholarships to make community college tuition-free are starting to see the impact on college enrollment.

About 6,000 Oregon residents are taking classes for free through the state’s Oregon Promise program this fall, according to preliminary figures reported by The Oregonian, about the number state officials anticipated for the first year of the program.

Tennessee’s program completed its first year this spring. Last fall, more than 16,000 scholarship recipients enrolled in two-year colleges, with the average student receiving a $1,020 award from the state, according to state figures. The majority of those students returned for their spring semester.

Congress hasn’t taken up President Barack Obama’s plan to make the first two years of community college free, but states and cities are pursuing the strategy. Some 150 communities have established free college programs, according to the College Promise Campaign, a nonpartisan effort launched by Obama last year.

Minnesota is also piloting a free college scholarship, and Kentucky has passed legislation to create one. Legislators in 11 other states have considered the idea.

Communities have grappled with how to fund these programs. The Tennessee and Minnesota programs operate as “last dollar” scholarships, with the state stepping in to pay any tuition that’s not already covered by state and federal grants. Oregon’s program operates the same way, but adds a minimum $1,000 grant for each student.

As enrollment numbers roll in, states will get a better sense of how much money they need to keep their promise, whether middle-class or low-income students are benefiting (or both), and how the scholarships are affecting the rest of higher education.

In Tennessee, for instance, university enrollment fell last year. That could mean that students who would have gone to university in the past have been encouraged to start at community college instead.

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