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A Better Way to Pay for Free College?

By Corey Murray

Fundraising program raises money for at-risk students to attend community college for free.

It never hurts to ask.

That’s at least part of the message coming out of Michigan, where administrators for the Grand Rapids Community College Foundation have raised more than $26.5 million in gifts and awards in little more than three years — all part of a special fund that will pay for the area’s disadvantaged high school students to pursue a college degree.

Called Challenge Scholars, the initiative which, according to a recent article by online news service MLive, is $6.5 million short of its $32 million goal, represents another in a litany of fledgling proposals or programs intended to reduce — or in some cases eliminate — the cost of college.

If all goes as planned, eligible students at participating high schools who graduate in the Class of 2020 and beyond will receive last-dollar scholarships — case-by-case financial gifts intended to cover the gap between a student’s existing financial aid package and other scholarships and the cost of tuition at an eligible two- or four-year institution.

Free-college movement

News of the scholarship’s progress toward its fundraising goal comes as education leaders in a handful of states, including Michigan, have publicly debated the merits of alternative free-college programs.

In Tennessee, lawmakers recently gave the green light to Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise. That program, which became the first in the nation to garner state approval, would allow students to attend years one and two of community college for free. Promise, which kicks off next year, will employ a last-dollar scholarship formula similar to the one being used in Grand Rapids.

Elsewhere in Michigan, lawmakers recently floated a “pay it forward” tuition program that would allow in-coming college freshman to attend college for free, provided they pledge a percentage of their career earnings to a fund so that future students can do the same.

Lawmakers in Oregon and Mississippi have considered the merits of similar proposals, though none has been approved by the states’ legislatures.

Fundraising vs. state funds

Every state must weigh the merits and sustainability of these programs against the shifting realities of its own unique budget and funding landscape.

But a fundamental difference exists between the Challenge Scholars initiative and what’s happening in Tennessee, for example.

Haslam’s Promise program is subsidized with $300 million in state lottery surpluses; Challenge Scholars is driven purely by fundraising.

There’s no question that the two are far apart in scale. When it kicks off next year, Tennessee’s Promise initiative will be available to nearly every high school graduate in the state. The Grand Rapids program will be available to select students in a single high school district, and there are plans to expand in the future.

Still, the two models raise an interesting question about the growing interest in free college: What’s more feasible — a small-scale program driven by fundraising and expanded over time, or a blanket initiative underwritten by state funds?

A statewide program can reach more students faster. But is it sustainable? That is, what happens when there is no longer a surplus to support the initiative? Does it make good fiscal sense to make the program available to all students, regardless of socioeconomic or at-risk status, or would the state essentially be giving money to students who don’t need it?

On the flip side, can a smaller fundraising campaign that’s scaled over time cover enough ground to effectively serve all of the students who might rightly benefit from it? What happens when fundraising tapers off or people stop giving? Is there a viable alternative to keep these programs afloat?

Given the relative newness of these different initiatives, it will probably be some time before community college leaders have the answers they are looking for. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they can afford to wait.

Is your state or college considering new measures to increase the number of students who pursue a college education? Tell us in the Comments.

Corey Murray

is editor of the 21st-Century Center.

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