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Although Americans largely support student loan forgiveness and free community colleges, most do not take advantage of the latter to earn their two-year degrees.
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A BestColleges study found that 69% of Americans support some type of financial aid that makes community college free for many people, especially for first-time college students. However, 37% of those who expressed support believed that there must be some conditions to qualify, such as a minimum GPA or financial need.
But are the current requirements so stringent that they prevent people from applying? That may be the case.
With 29 states now offering free community college, there is an opportunity to learn how free college theory works in practice. Research shows that the number of potential students is not benefiting from the programs as expected. The paperwork may be too complex, or the requirements are too stringent. It may also be the case that many students are not aware of the available money.
Obstacles to using free software
Some states offer “first dollar scholarships,” where students receive financial aid regardless of whether they receive other scholarships, grants, or money for the university. But most, like New York, offer “last dollar” grants, which cover costs only after other aid has been used. Most programs do not pay for books, transportation, or any costs other than tuition, which can create a barrier for some low-income students.
This is the number one obstacle to adoption, since students who qualify for Pell Scholarships or other need-based programs may not be eligible for additional assistance. Some countries offer needs-based grants, while others do not place income restrictions to qualify but have other conditions.
Any students who apply for assistance through their state for a free college must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to help determine their eligibility. For the Excelsior program in New York, students must also complete the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) application and the Excelsior Scholarship Form.
Many of the programs listed below have postgraduate residency requirements designed to maintain skilled labor in the state once students complete their degrees. This might lock up students in a state with a higher cost of living, such as New York, or an area with fewer job opportunities in their field.
Some programs also specify fields of study, although a wide range of majors is available in most of them. Only a handful have community service requirements for students. Some are only available to new students. Many programs require students to maintain a minimum GPA.
Finally—and this may be the biggest barrier for low-income students who need to work full-time while in college—many two- and four-year scholarships only apply to full-time students.
Excelsior in New York: the first of its kind
In 2017, New York paved the way for free college with the Excelsior program, offering free tuition at SUNY and CUNY for two and four years.
But according to a report by The Urban Institute, the money isn’t getting to those who need it most.
The New York program is perhaps one of the most restrictive, requiring students to remain in the state, and live and work exclusively in New York, for the same number of years that they received award money. If they move or work out of state, they must repay the grant as a loan.
In 2018, only 5% of first-year undergraduate CUNY students benefited from Excelsior funds for the first time. Eight percent of eligible community college students received the award, while that number jumped to 31% for those in four-year schools.
The money is only available to full-time students with a family income of up to $125,000. But, when assessing CUNY enrollment, the Urban Institute discovered that 68% of Excelsior’s money goes to students with incomes of $70,000 or more.
The program offers a “last dollar” scholarship, which means that other ways to fund the college must be exhausted before students can benefit from the funds. An Urban Institute report says that only approximately 25% of eligible students accept an Excelsior scholarship, and nearly half of those who accept it in their first year do not renew it.
The Urban Institute cites government residency requirements, complicated paperwork, strict academic requirements and “strict completion criteria” as reasons for the low scholarship renewal rate.
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What countries offer free college?
Excelsior Scholarship program issues in New York are issues with programs in other countries as well. Several awards for the two- and four-year degree programs are available only to full-time first-year students.
For people looking to earn a degree or certification and increase their earning power while working full time to support themselves or their families, restrictions such as maintaining a minimum GPA, maintaining ongoing enrollment as a full-time student, or meeting community service requirements can be more too much.
Some states, like Oregon, Michigan, and Oklahoma, don’t have hoops to jump through, but that’s not the case nationwide. Students considering taking advantage of a free college program in their state should read the finer details carefully.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” In the case of many of these programs—which come with tradeoffs that include extra time, paperwork, stress, and strict academic requirements—there’s no such thing as “free college” either—at least, not yet.
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