With new state funds in hand, community colleges waive tuition for some high school students

BySneha Dey, The Texas Tribune
Thursday, March 14, 2024
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Texas community colleges know many high schoolers are skeptical of higher education because of the price tag. Some want to change that conversation by using new state dollars to waive tuition for some of their youngest students.

Austin Community College, one of the most populous junior colleges in the state, is set to waive tuition for this year's graduating high school seniors through 2027. ACC's Board of Trustees will vote on the proposal in April. If the proposal passes, the school would use the $6.8 million it received this year through House Bill 8 - the legislation passed last year that expanded the pot of money junior colleges get funding from and tied future funds to positive student outcomes - to pay for this benefit.

"'Discount' doesn't change people's perceptions that they can't afford to go to college... 'Free' means something when you're talking about college affordability in the way that a discount does not," ACC Chancellor Russell Lowery-Hart said.

Austin Community College plans to pay eligible students' tuition before federal and state aid kicks in. Known as a "first-dollar" program, this setup would allow students to use other aid toward expenses like books, child care and housing. The plan is a rare departure from "last-dollar" scholarships, in which federal and state aid goes to tuition before the institution covers the student's remaining balance. Last-dollar scholarships don't always translate to help for the lowest-income students because the community colleges that offer them often don't end up subsidizing any tuition costs for students who qualified for the federal Pell Grant.

Other schools are also doubling down on financial support for their youngest students with dual credit. By the spring, nearly every community college in the state will have waived the cost of dual credit courses for economically disadvantaged high school students. This effort was facilitated by the state - colleges who participate qualify for extra state funding.

Questioning the value of college

In Texas and across the country, young people and their families have become increasingly skeptical of the benefits of college. Negative public perception of higher education costs has mostly centered around four-year, private institutions. Experts say community colleges often get lumped into that conversation, even though they usually have lower tuition rates.

"Families continue to still get the main message that if you mean college, you must mean a four-year college. That's what you're supposed to want. That's the thing to aspire to. And that's what you're supposed to try for your kid to go to. And if you can't, then you can't 'afford' college," said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a senior fellow at research group Education Northwest. "That's really problematic."

In Austin, about 57% of high school seniors do not enroll in any higher education institution after graduating. Higher education leaders believe many of these students skipped college and entered the workforce to keep up with the cost of living.

"We do think there's a lot of (students) that have already given up (on college) because they heard that it's $50,000 or $100,000 to get a degree. And they don't know that it's always been a fraction of that at Austin Community College," said Neil Vickers, the school's chief financial officer. "But you don't know what you don't know."

Offering free tuition should convince some students to enter college right after high school, Vickers said. He also expects the very idea of free tuition will send a clear message to all students that college is attainable. He hopes more Austin students will reach out to their student financial aid offices.

Increasing access to dual credit can position students to think about college early. Earning college credit while still in high school has been linked to a higher likelihood of graduating high school, attending college and completing a degree.

And high school students enrolling in dual credit classes need help since they are usually not eligible for financial aid, according to Mark Escamilla, the president of Del Mar College. The school used $2 million of its HB 8 money last year to make dual credit free regardless of need.

Beyond financial aid

Free-college programs at community colleges are tied to large enrollment increases of first-time, full-time students, particularly among Black, Hispanic and female students, according to a 2020 Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis report.

But to have lasting positive impacts on the perception of college, higher education experts say colleges need to build on free-tuition programs with more support for newly enrolled students.

"When they talk about affordability, that's great, but if the student or the household or the family cannot see long-term career success...then it may or may not align with the values of that student or their family," Kenyatta Lovett, a Texas-based higher education consultant at Education Strategy Group.

Lovett said colleges need to be transparent about what a student should expect in the workforce after graduation.

Low-income families look at their communities' experiences with college when considering whether higher education is right for them, he added. They judge whether the college graduates they know achieved economic mobility with their degrees - and when a student who does not complete their college education is left saddled with debt, the message is negative.

"That messaging gets spread throughout the community, that college isn't worth it because you can take this risk, but it may not work in your favor," Lovett said.

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