RALEIGH (March 9, 2022) – The Republicans in Tennessee get it. In 2014, the state legislature and then-Gov. Bill Haslam approved Tennessee Promise, which let the state’s recent high-school graduates attend community college free of tuition and fees.
In its first year, the program boosted the college-going rate of Tennessee high-school graduates by 6 percentage points, from 58.6% to 64.4%, though it has subsided slightly since. Over three years, the state saw a 15% increase in the number of students who attended community college.1 And by 2019, at least 30 other states had launched similar programs.2
Here in North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper has long proposed “last-dollar” scholarship programs that cover the full cost of community college tuition and fees after taking a student’s federal Pell Grants and other aid into account. But he couldn’t get support from the General Assembly.
So last year, Cooper used $31.5 million in federal pandemic relief dollars that he controlled to create the Longleaf Commitment, a scholarship based on financial need that provided 2021 (and later 20203) high-school graduates with $700 to $2,800 a year to cover community-college costs beyond other sources of aid.4
In their budget agreement in November, Cooper and legislative leaders agreed to add $25 million to extend the Longleaf Commitment to 2022 high-school graduates.5
After an 11% decline in community college enrollment in Fall 2020, some colleges have taken the program further, offering free tuition to all students, regardless of their ability to pay.
Forsyth Technical Community College and other colleges saw applications increase after they announced free tuition for all 2021 North Carolina high-school graduates.6
And last week, Wake Technical Community College – the state’s largest, with 70,000 students – announced it will provide 2022 high-school graduates who enroll for Fall 2022 with a year of tuition and fees, no matter their financial need.7
“The past two years have been particularly challenging for high-school graduates and their families,” said Wake Tech President Scott Ralls.
“Now as they plan for education beyond high school, they are facing rising gas and other costs. We don’t want the cost of college to be a barrier to anyone in our community in pursuing their college dreams.”8
So far, nearly 12,000 students have received Longleaf Commitment grants, and 70% of the grants have gone to students with family incomes under $60,000.9
The federal dollars that support the program will expire after two years, however.
At least 28 of the state’s 58 community colleges offer last-dollar scholarships from a variety of revenue sources to cover students’ tuition and fees, according to the NC Community College System.
But it remains a patchwork – there’s no uniform statewide free tuition program, as Tennessee has.
Whether the state’s initial step to expand the Longleaf Commitment becomes permanent support for North Carolina’s community college students remains to be seen.
1 https://comptroller.tn.gov/content/dam/cot/orea/advanced-search/2021/TNPromiseUpdate.pdf, pp. 2-3.
5 https://www.wral.com/more-need-based-financial-aid-in-new-nc-budget/19998709/; https://webservices.ncleg.gov/ViewBillDocument/2021/53493/2/S105-BD-NBC-9300, p. 76 (B50).
7 https://www.wral.com/wake-tech-offering-free-tuition-for-north-carolina-high-school-grads/20169399/; https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/education/article258964903.html.