Free Tuition Follow Up

Over the last few months, I've written two articles about colleges offering free tuition for students, a topic that continues to be discussed nationally. Following is an overview on what's taken place in terms of progress and some new initiatives to help make college more affordable for students.

The first is the Tennessee Promise, a plan to raise the state's graduation rates from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025. The plan offers high school graduates beginning with the Class of 2015 two years of tuition-free college in "last dollar" money, covering all costs not met by other financial aid.

The goal was to enroll 20,000 students by the Nov. 1 application deadline. So far, as of the end of September, Community College Daily reports that nearly 23,000 students have applied. How this impacts the state's other schools remains to be seen. But University of Tennessee chancellor Joe DiPietro is taking a positive stance. He recently stated that he doesn't see UT in competition with community colleges. Instead, he is looking ahead to 2017 when the first students under Tennessee Promise finish their community college education and are ready to transfer to four-year schools. DiPietro said UT can focus on helping these students finish their baccalaureates and perhaps expand graduate programs.

Meanwhile, the state of Oregon recently looked into free college tuition through "last dollar" money. The Oregonian reports that it could cost anywhere from $10 million to $250 million annually, depending upon the plan. Variable factors include whether to cover just tuition and fees or to include books and room and board, to offer funding to recent high school grads or to extend it to adult students, and whether to fund only full-time students or both full- and part-time students.

Oregon's Higher Education Coordinating Commission completed its study and recommended that extra money should instead be spent to pay off state-issued construction bonds, increase funds for the state's community colleges and universities, and expand financial aid. Still, the commission said the idea of free tuition is worth discussing, especially since one of its goals is to raise college attainment rates for state residents.

North Dakota has an enviable situation: a projected $5 billion in new oil revenue for next year. One proposal for a portion of this money is to provide free college tuition for students who maintain a good GPA. While details have not been worked out, legislation may be voted on as early as this winter.

In Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanual announced last week the new Chicago Star Scholarship, which would offer free tuition to Chicago Public School students who graduate with a 3.0 GPA or higher and place into college-level math and English. The scholarship can be used at one of the city's seven City Colleges and will provide waivers for tuition, fees and books. It will be paid for by City Colleges of Chicago, which expects to enroll up to 1,000 more students next fall.

At Cuesta College in California, a donation of $8 million to the college's Foundation has resulted in a scholarship endowment that covers first-year tuition and fees for all newly graduated San Luis Obispo County high school students. In Georgia, a state policy allows residents age 62 and older to attend college for free.

Looking abroad, higher education is free in Germany - even for international students.

It's an intriguing idea, but as you can see, it takes funding, something that the state of Illinois simply doesn't have. But free education may come in other forms - such as MOOCs (massive open online courses offered for free). While some have said MOOCs will revolutionize higher education, it's become clear this doesn't seem to be the case. Still, as the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, the revolution isn't dead. Now that the initial frenzy over MOOCs has passed, it's time to assess this delivery method and determine how these courses can be used by colleges and universities, how to measure success and how to actually make them open to everyone. In addition the Wall Street Journal discusses whether businesses will begin using MOOCs for executive training.

It's clear all of these initiatives are designed to make a college education more attainable, which in turn provides a more educated workforce and strengthens local businesses and economies. While the state of Illinois simply cannot fund free tuition, it forces individual colleges like us to be creative in our efforts help students gain access to a higher education without breaking the bank.

As I discussed earlier, the fact that the state's community college presidents are backing the baccalaureate movement is one way for students to earn a bachelor's degree at a fraction of the cost. Another is our 3+1 programs, which we will continue to expand with the announcement of a new partnership at the end of this month. Offering full scholarships in the form of Presidential Scholarships to high achieving students is another example, while our Foundation continues to raise more and more money for scholarships. In addition, paying close attention to our fiscal responsibilities has enabled COD to lower tuition by $4 per credit hour for the spring 2015 term. Our enrollment increase means people want to be here. Our greatest objective is to provide each student with the best education possible so they leave here with either a job in hand or a seamless transfer to a four-year school. Just as important, our goal is to make sure they finish their degrees without incurring a substantial amount of debt.