May 25, 2024

We’re in a Moment: Making Community College Tuition-Free

Author: Mary Churchill
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Chris, I reached out to you after reading your blog post, Free Tuition Could Solve Community College Enrollment Woes, at the New America blog. Why do you think that free tuition is a solution?

The skyrocketing cost of college is one of the most significant barriers to college access and completion. All efforts to make college affordable–especially those that involve free tuition plans–will help increase enrollment. But let’s back up and contextualize this current moment.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, community college enrollments have plummeted by nearly 17 percent. These enrollment declines have been particularly pronounced for Black male and Native American male students. Given this, and that community colleges serve more than half of all undergraduate students from low-income families, community college enrollment declines threaten to worsen pre-existing educational inequities

Despite these national trends, recent enrollment data from Maine suggest that making community college tuition-free can stabilize community college enrollment. Only four months after announcing the Free College Scholarship–which covers 100% of tuition and fees for recent Maine high school graduates to attend any of the state’s seven community colleges–Maine’s community college enrollment increased by 12% from the year before. This increase reflects findings from prior research that found colleges with free tuition had significant enrollment increases when compared to nearby colleges without free tuition. Importantly, free tuition plans are associated with particularly large enrollment gains for Black and Latino students, which makes free community college a promising strategy to both increase enrollment and advance racial equity in higher education. 

Making community college tuition-free would positively impact many students, but by itself, will not prevent students from accumulating debt, nor will it fully offset the racial and economic inequities inherent in higher education. But, there is incredible power in the simplicity of the free college message that can motivate students to enroll, or re-enroll, in college. The value in this can’t be ignored. Even though free community college won’t solve the affordability crisis in higher education, it is a powerful, relatable strategy to ensure more people can access college. Because of this, higher education leaders and advocates need to work to make community college tuition-free as a first step towards ensuring all Americans can afford higher education. 

The readership at Inside Higher Ed is largely from the higher ed sector. What role can college and university leaders play in moving the needle on policy issues related to making college more affordable?

College and university leaders can play a significant role in making higher education more affordable by advocating for policy change at the state and federal level. Higher education leaders are uniquely positioned to advocate for change, given that they can translate the experiences of their students into meaningful examples of what’s working–and what’s not–across college and university campuses. By leveraging student experiences, sharing data that captures relevant trends on their campuses, and by translating academic research into concrete action steps, higher education leaders can move policymakers to craft legislation that makes college affordable. 

To make community college tuition-free, it would be particularly impactful if higher education leaders and scholars from different disciplines worked together to craft comprehensive arguments that support free-tuition plans. Economists, sociologists, education policy researchers, and historians may all have different reasons for why community college should be tuition-free and the different perspectives on this issue may influence relevant policymakers to take action.

What are some best practice examples of ways that higher ed leaders have engaged with state and federal elected officials in making community college tuition-free?

Higher education leaders can most effectively advocate for tuition-free community college if they link the importance of free tuition with the current moment we face. When we look towards New Mexico to see how they recently passed free in-state tuition at all two-and four-year institutions statewide, we see evidence of advocates–including higher ed leaders–connecting the need to make college tuition-free with the hyper relevant debate regarding COVID-19 induced labor shortages. In doing so, advocates in New Mexico were able to build a broad base of support for free tuition, as residents statewide understood the need to increase the labor supply, and saw how free tuition at colleges and universities could help prepare more people to enter the workforce.

If higher education leaders can connect the research on the benefits of free community college with topical debates–like economic recovery from COVID-19, addressing labor shortages, and enhancing economic mobility for people with low incomes–they will be well suited to help make free community college a reality across the country. 


Mary Churchill is professor of the practice and director of the higher education administration program at Boston University where she also serves as associate dean. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis.


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