As state economies rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, we are pleased to report that there has been considerable recent activity to enact or expand state programs that make public colleges tuition-free. The programs detailed below, in most instances, enjoyed bipartisan support and were the product of strong gubernatorial leadership.
Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation in March 2021 creating the “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” initiative, or “G3” program. Effective July 1, 2021, the program will make Virginia community colleges tuition-free for eligible students who pursue jobs in high-demand fields.
Eligibility requirements include a family income of not more than 400 percent of federal poverty guidelines; enrollment in eligible high demand programs for a minimum of six credit hours per semester; and submission of a FAFSA. Frontline workers during the COVID-19 Pandemic, as defined under Phase 1a and 1b of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Virginia Department of Health (VDH), are eligible for the G3 Program under the state of emergency and for two years thereafter.
The G3 program is a last dollar plus program that, in addition to college tuition, will provide grants up to $900 per semester to students who qualify for a full Pell Grant for wraparound expenses such as food, transportation, and childcare.
In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy signed a bill in February 2021 to permanently establish the Community College Opportunity Grant Program (CCOG). The grant program was first enacted through budget language in the Fiscal Year 2019 appropriations act. For the 2022 Fiscal Year budget, the Governor has proposed $27 million to support the CCOG grant program.
Community College Opportunity Grants are available to county (community) college students who do not have a prior college degree; who are enrolled for at least six credits per semester; complete a FAFSA or alternative financial aid application; and have an household income of less than $65,000. This enacting legislation also calls for funding a “Student Success Incentive” that will be used to support outreach and student success initiatives to further the goals of the CCOG grant program.
“New Jersey now sends a clear message: county college is tuition-free for students with family incomes of $65,000 or below,” said David Socolow, Executive Director of the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA) which administers the CCOG program. “Governor Murphy has enabled HESAA to back up that promise by filling students’ remaining financial aid gaps with more than 25,000 Community College Opportunity Grants since the spring 2019 semester. The impact of this commitment reaches still further, by making an up-front, tuition-free price guarantee that enables tens of thousands of additional students to focus on their postsecondary education without concern about paying the tuition sticker price. Many students can now consider enrolling in college with full confidence that their entire county college tuition will be covered by the State of New Jersey. By raising awareness that college is more affordable, we can encourage more students to pursue courses of study that will enhance their lives and careers here in the Garden State.”
After nearly a year delay due to fiscal uncertainty related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer launched her $30 million Michigan Reconnect program in February. This program, which has considerable business community support, will provide more than 4.1 million Michiganders who are 25 or older and do not have a college degree with an opportunity to earn a tuition-free associate degree or skills certificate.
The program builds on the resounding success of the Futures for Frontliners initiative that Gov. Whitmer launched last year. This initiative offered tuition-free college or high school completion to state residents who provided essential front-line services during COVID-19 Stay Home, Stay Safe orders between April and June 2020. More than 120,000 Michiganders submitted applications by the Dec. 31 deadline and over 12,000 Frontliners are currently enrolled in community college.
At the end of March, the state received approximately 70,000 Reconnect applications, surpassing the program’s initial goal of reaching 60,000 applicants by Memorial Day. These results demonstrate considerable pent-up demand from employers and workers alike for tuition-free college.
Rhode Island’s Senate recently passed legislation to make the Rhode Island Promise permanent. Once enacted, the bill will be a fitting tribute to former Governor Raimondo, who now serves as the 40th U.S. Secretary of Commerce.
Finally, there is good news to report from New Mexico where Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed several budget and policy measures that will benefit higher education students and support workforce development. Most significantly, the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship will receive $18 million to support part-time and non-traditional students as well as recent high school graduates in pursuing certificate, associate, and bachelor’s degrees at public and Tribal colleges and universities in New Mexico. The last-dollar scholarship was established in 2020, but was initially limited to students attending full-time and pursuing two-year degrees. The budget also includes a $15 million College Affordability Endowment that will be used to support students with financial need who do not qualify for other state grants and scholarships in pursuing degrees. Students enrolled at least part-time can receive a maximum of $1,500 per semester.
We would like to thank all the governors and legislators who worked to address college access and affordability in 2021! CFCT will be working with both state and federal policy makers to provide additional free-college tuition opportunities.
Our goal is to make higher education a possibility for every American, without regard to their financial circumstances.
We have a lot to do and not much time to do it, so your support is critical for our campaign to succeed. It’s with your investment that we can fundamentally reform how higher education is financed in this country, opening the doors to a more equitable society.
If you agree with our goal, our plan, and the urgency of the problem, we ask that you give what you can to help us write the next chapter in our nation’s history of continuously expanding access to universal, free education.