A California nonprofit that is promoting the idea of making public colleges tuition-free brought its campaign to Seattle last week, showcasing several programs that offer students a chance to go to college for little or no money.
President Obama wants to make community college tuition-free. The state of Tennessee has eliminated tuition at its community colleges for most Tennessee high-school graduates. And last month, the legislature in neighboring Oregon made community-college tuition low cost or free for its recent high-school graduates.
After years of steep tuition hikes, is the pendulum swinging the other way?
That’s what the Campaign for Free College Tuition hopes. The California-based nonprofit came to Seattle last week to host a summit on college affordability — part of a larger effort it endorses to make all public colleges tuition-free.
About 50 people participated and the audience included legislators, community-college leaders, nonprofits and other college advocates in Washington. Ted Mitchell, U.S. undersecretary of education and the Obama administration’s top official on higher education, gave the keynote speech.
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Morley Winograd, president and CEO of the campaign, said one of the most ambitious programs is offered by the southwest Michigan city of Kalamazoo. Janice Brown, former superintendent of that city’s school district and a trustee of the Kalamazoo Promise program, described how it works.
The Kalamazoo Promise pays most or all of the tuition for Kalamazoo Public School graduates at nearly all of Michigan’s state public schools, plus a handful of private schools. The longer a student has been in the Kalamazoo district, the larger the award; for example, a student who started in Kalamazoo as a kindergartner would get a 100 percent tuition award.
Brown said the privately funded program has turned school performance around in Kalamazoo, where 70 percent of students qualify for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program.
She challenged Seattle, with its wealth of tech billionaires, to do something similar.
To keep the program simple, Kalamazoo Promise is for every student, regardless of how much money their parents make, Brown said. She said its founders believe all students should have the opportunity to go to college.
The city has benefited from deep pockets. A group of anonymous local philanthropists is fully funding the program, which costs about $11 million a year.
And the decade-old program is seeing results: The rate of students earning bachelor’s degrees has gone from 30 to 40 percent, and the percentage earning postsecondary degrees overall — including associate’s degrees — has gone from 36 to 48 percent.
Brown says the program has boosted the district’s standardized test scores, and it’s responsible for a 200 percent increase in the number of students taking Advanced Placement tests in high school.
The Oregon Promise, approved by that state’s legislature a month ago, offers a more limited program: It will give students who graduate from Oregon high schools at least $1,000 a year, up to the full cost of tuition, to attend the state’s community colleges. It begins next year.
At the summit, Oregon state Sen. Mark Hass, a Beaverton Democrat and advocate for higher education, said the program arose in part out of concern about the state’s growing population of unemployed 18- to 24-year-olds.
“In my generation, 30 to 35 years ago, you would have walked into a timber mill and gotten a job” after high school, he said. Today, most of those mills are shuttered, and each unemployed youth costs taxpayers $14,000 a year in social services and other costs.
Hass said the state decided to open the program to all students, not just those from low-income families, because “in my state the middle-class families pay most of the taxes.”
Washington’s own version of a promise scholarship, the College Bound program, pays for tuition and books for low-income students who sign up in middle school, graduate from Washington high schools, stay out of legal trouble and have at least a C average.
Brown believes simpler programs are more effective. Programs that place an income cutoff on free college, or scholarship programs that reward students who go into specific fields (such as Washington’s Opportunity Scholarship program for students going into science, technology, engineering and math) are less successful, she believes. “They’re keying in on some population of students, and ignoring the rest.”
In his remarks, Mitchell said the Obama administration is campaigning for free community-college tuition as part of a broader goal of making a college degree the new minimum standard of education for American students.
And Winograd calls the Obama proposal “a great first step” that changed the conversation in the country, making free tuition a mainstream political issue.
Mitchell said one of the things that’s heartening about states and small communities offering free college is that they are, in effect, conducting a national experiment — and may eventually point to the best way to get more students to go to college.
Information in this article, originally published Aug. 29, 2015, was corrected Aug. 31, 2015. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of people who attended the summit.