WALNUT COVE (March 9, 2022) – ‘Free’ is a loaded term – somebody has to pay. But education leaders say free community-college tuition could help lift more North Carolina students out of poverty.
“Community college tuition in North Carolina is an extremely good deal,” Forsyth Technical Community College President Janet Spriggs says in the accompanying video.
At $76 per credit hour, or about $2,500 over the course of a year, Spriggs points out that community college costs about a third as much as a public university – one reason starting at a community college makes good financial sense.
“With that said, however, I would love to see a statewide commitment for free college tuition,” Spriggs says. Students would likely still have to bear the cost of books, gas and transportation, she says.
“But I think if we could extend our public education into that higher education realm with a commitment to free tuition versus low-cost tuition, we’d be able to open the door for so many other students,” she says.
“Many low-income students, particularly, don’t believe that they can afford to go to college without getting into a lot of debt. We would like an opportunity to introduce them to college in an environment that keeps them out of debt and that really, again, helps us with that mission of moving people out of poverty, breaking the cycle of inter-generational poverty.
“There’s probably nothing better that North Carolina can do … than to offer free college tuition for community colleges.”
AT PITT COMMUNITY COLLEGE in Winterville, President Lawrence Rouse highlights the college’s Bulldog Promise, which offers free tuition to students who graduate from high school with a 2.0 grade-point average.
“We can offer them tuition-free for the next two years of their enrollment here at Pitt Community College,” Rouse says.
“Certainly we want to offer as many opportunities for individuals to attend college – we don’t think it should be that if you don’t have the money, that you can’t attend,” he says.
“Now we certainly hope that the state will look at different models and help us to decide is there some way that we can offer tuition free for our community colleges – we would certainly like that. We think it would just help when it comes to workforce development, as well as a higher attainment rate.”
At this point, at least 28 of North Carolina’s 58 community colleges offer last-dollar scholarships that cover tuition and fees, according to the NC Community College System. A statewide program of tuition-free college is not part of the System’s formal legislative agenda, however.
NCCCS President Thomas Stith says that federal Pell Grants, in addition to the state’s Longleaf Commitment grants and the Community College Grant and Scholarship program, already provide tuition and fee assistance for eligible students, he says.
The federal dollars that underwrite the Longleaf Commitment Grants expire at the end of 2023, however.
“We appreciate state leaders allocating grant funds for the Longleaf Commitment,” Stith said in a statement. “And while we have Pell Grants, we will continue to pursue other funds that provide higher education opportunities for all.”
IF THERE’S ANY DOUBT about the appeal of tuition-free college, though, just listen to Mark Plymale, a welding student at Forsyth Tech’s Stokes County Center in Walnut Cove.
Relying on the state’s Longleaf Commitment grants, Forsyth Tech announced free tuition for all students last year.
After two years of high school disrupted by the Covid pandemic, Plymale says, he intended to simply start working once he graduated – until he heard Forsyth Tech’s announcement about free tuition and saw its Stokes campus.
“Forsyth Tech made sense for me when they announced that they were going to do the free college,” Plymale says.
“I’ve been telling all my friends. I’ve got a lot of buddies who decided not to go to school, and I’m like, ‘Guys, come on, y’all are smart guys. This is a smart opportunity.’
“I had the two-year ability to get free college. I saw all those zeroes in my student debt just drop, and I was like, ‘That’s crazy.’”