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Tuesday, June 13, 2017
The Growing Trend of Free College Tuition
In late 2015, the state of Tennessee became the first in the nation to offer free community college tuition for graduating high school seniors. In return, recipients were required to do 8 hours of community service, maintain a 2.0 GPA, meet with a mentor and apply for all available state and federal aid. Tennessee would cover the rest.

Over the past couple of years, others have followed suit. In fall of 2016, Oregon introduced a similar plan. In February 2017, the city of San Francisco announced their intention to fund free college tuition for students in the city, using levies on the sale of properties sold for more than $5 million. In April of this year, New York became the first state in the nation to offer free tuition at both two-year and four-year institutions. This week, Tennessee upped the ante by expanding their free tuition to all adults.

The "Tennessee Promise" program is reporting good results, with both an increase in applicants in year one, and about an 80% retention rate in year two. Retaining students is critical; nationally, only about a third of community college students go on to receive a four-year degree. By extending their program to include all adults, the state is hoping to improve graduation rates. For many students, life gets in the way of going back to college-people start families, take jobs or otherwise lose the ability to feasibly prioritize higher education.

None of the free tuition programs are without flaws. In Tennessee and Oregon, the programs only kick in once students have exhausted state and federal aid programs. The criticism is that the assistance has the most positive effect on middle-income families, and that low-income students aren't receiving the greatest benefit.

However, in the face of a presidential administration that promises sweeping cuts to federal student aid, state-led programs like these are likely to become more common, and critical to accessible higher education.

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