A 29-year-old woman hustles to her community college campus, running late. She attends her classes, sits in the front row taking extensive notes and rushes back to her car as fast as she can. She can’t attend the evening study session, even though she needs it. It would require her to miss work, which would likely result in losing her job. She doesn’t get home until after nine, scrapes together a quick, cheap meal and then works on her homework until she falls asleep. She keeps going because she wants a better life. She hopes her degree will get her that promotion at work or a better paying job where she won’t have to choose between making rent and eating.
With countless stories like this across all regions of the country, states and schools are considering new ways to address the growing student debt crisis and the increasing need for workers with a post-secondary education. According to Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, post-secondary education will be most in demand in healthcare, information technology, and government—where 80 percent of jobs will require more than a high school diploma. Without major changes to our higher education system, the economy will fall short 5 million workers with post-secondary degrees by 2020.
In 2017, the state of Tennessee launched the Tennessee Reconnect Act in an effort to increase the number of advanced degree-holding residents to 55 percent. Adults who have been in residence over one year and do not already possess a degree, can attend a community or technical college and complete a post-secondary degree or credential—for free. Tennessee hopes this act, funded by the state lottery, will give many more state residents the opportunity to earn a degree—and Tennessee is not the only state taking such steps.
The University of Michigan developed the Go Blue Guarantee. In-state residents earning $65,000 or less are eligible for four years of free tuition. Students are also eligible for financial aid to cover non-tuition costs.
New York offers tuition-free education at all state colleges for in-state residents whose families earn less than $125,000. Students will still be responsible for room and board and other expenses, and after graduating, they will be required to live and work in New York for the same length of time they participated in the program.
Oregon offers community college for $50 a term through the Oregon Promise state grant. Students must have graduated from an Oregon high school or received a GED, earned a 2.5 or higher cumulative GPA and been an Oregon resident for at least one year. If a student’s tuition is covered by federal aid, the grant will provide a $1,000 award to help pay for books and other college costs.
To date, free-tuition efforts have mostly centered on helping undergraduates cover tuition expenses, but this year, New York University School of Medicine announced it would cover the cost of tuition for all of its students. Citing the overwhelming student debt graduates face (the average debt of its class of 2017 was $184,000), the medical school is offering all students full-tuition scholarships, funded through fundraising initiatives and generous donations. Robert I. Grossman, dean of the medical school and chief executive officer of N.Y.U. Langone Health, told the New York Times, “This decision recognizes a moral imperative that must be addressed, as institutions place an increasing debt burden on young people who aspire to become physicians.”
Acknowledging that a high school diploma is no longer sufficient for success in today’s economy, more states are implementing or considering tuition-free programs that will create a more educated workforce. The number of tuition-free programs will continue to rise as states, cities and schools seek to address the student debt crisis. For financially struggling students who desperately want to learn and prepare for the workforce, tuition-free programs could make all the difference.