Wave Of 300+ Free College Programs Spreads Across US

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Written by Ann Brown
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Students walk between classes on campus at Brooklyn College, one of New York’s public institutions. Photo Bebeto Matthews, AP

With student loan debt skyrocketing to more than $1.56 trillion — a level approaching a nationwide financial crisis — free education would come as a big relief.

There has been a surge of free college programs popping up all across the country with more than 300 such programs in 44 states. At least 120 of the free programs were launched in 2015 to 2017, according to data from the College Promise Campaign, which tracks and advocates for the programs, the Wall Street Journal reported.


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A college education is still vital to getting a good job, but many Americans are shut out of higher education because of the costs. These programs might just change that.

Most of the program have requirements, such as in Chicago, where high school students with a B-average or higher can attend one of the city’s seven community colleges for free. In Tennessee, anyone and everyone can go to community and technical colleges for free as long as they maintain a certain grade-point average.

“We obviously had the question of, ‘Is this just another entitlement program?’” said Bill Haslam, a former Tennessee governor who was one of the first Republicans to push for free college. “But my argument was this: The requirement for postsecondary education is only increasing.”

There are critics of free school programs.

“Some are so narrowly tailored, they only reach a small number of people,”
the WSJ reported. “It isn’t clear that all programs are leading students to graduate from two- or four-year colleges at higher rates. Still other programs have shown that if a student goes to a two-year college straight out of high school, they are less likely to get a four-year degree.”

That’s the classic trade-off with community college, said Robert Kelchen, a professor at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. “If you start there, you’re less likely to finish with a bachelor’s degree.”

Despite the critics, supporters say there is data that shows such programs are effective.

In Chicago, the free college program helped raise the city’s high-school graduation rate from 54 percent in 2011 to 76 percent in 2018, according to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The free college program is used as an incentive for students to maintain high grades and graduate.