Unlocking Access: Free tuition programs are opening doors for some students--but are they making the grade?

Author:Boggs, Bennett G.
Position:EDUCATION - Promise programs

Sandra Timberlake's life hadn't quite turned out as she'd imagined.

With the crumbling of her first marriage, the newly single mother of four had been forced to move to the projects in her hometown of Nashville, Tenn. Then one night, while lying in bed listening to music from a family gathering outside, she thought about what she heard one of her new neighbors tell her 17-year-old pregnant daughter. "Baby, when you turn 18, you can have your own project."

"I got up, walked into my children's room and kissed each one," she says. "It was at that moment I decided that, with God, nothing is impossible, and I have to break this generational cycle."

Timberlake, now 55, graduated in 2016 from Tennessee College of Applied Technology with two honor degrees in accounting and medical coding and just recently received a bachelor's degree in organizational leadership from the Lipscomb University College of Professional Studies. It took her a while, but Tennessee Reconnect, an initiative to help adults return to higher education--along with a grant and some smart savings--helped her not only earn her degree but also finish with no student debt.

High and Higher

Skyrocketing college tuition rates have made the affordability of higher education a priority for states. College tuition increased by nearly 260% from 1980 to 2014, while the consumer price index grew by only 120%. The annual average cost of tuition and fees is currently $48,510 for private institutions, $37,430 for out-of-state residents at four-year public colleges, $21,370 for in-state students at state schools, and $12,310 at community colleges, according to the College Board, the nonprofit private organization that administers the SATs and a scholarship service. Those numbers are beyond many parents' reach.

Tiffany Jones, director of higher education at Education Trust, a national nonprofit that works to close opportunity gaps, says this dilemma has led leaders across the political spectrum to search for newways to deal with the high costs. Ideas include forgiving loans, freezing tuition rates, giving credits for certain high school courses or for life and work experiences, and offering free tuition.

Popular, Though Not 'Free'

"Free college" has caught the attention of many. Seventeen states and more than 350 localities in 44 states have enacted free college policies, and 23 states considered or are still debating legislation this year. Widely known as promise programs, they are popular, diverse and, generally, seek to:

* Address concerns about spiraling college costs and student debt.

* Invest in workforce development to support a vital and sustainable economic climate attractive to new business ventures.

* Send a straightforward message that pursuing a postsecondary degree, credential or license is affordable, especially to those who might not think such a possibility is within reach.

The simple fact, however, is that nothing is free--expenses must be paid somehow, by...

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