Free Community College Access Considered

Tuition guarantee programs that pay community college tuition for recent high school graduates have caught on in 20 of Mississippi’s 82 counties. Now the Legislature is looking to make the program available across the state. Tennessee and Oregon are also considering statewide programs.

Tuition, of course, is only part of the cost of attendance at community colleges. For example, at East Mississippi Community College the annual tuition of $2,050 is 28% of the estimated $7,400 annual cost of attendance. Books and supplies, fees, and room and board make up the remaining $5,350.

Started at Meridian Community College, the tuition guarantee program began to spread several years ago when the CREATE Foundation helped fund the program for students in 16 of its 17 counties who attend Itawamba, Northeast, and East Mississippi Community Colleges. Since then East Mississippi expanded its program to all its counties and Jones County Community College started the program in two counties.

Legislation to create the Mississippi plan was introduced by Republican state representative Jerry Turner of Baldwyn. It passed the House by a vote of 115 to 4 last week.

Turner said he modeled the program after CREATE’s successful program. Through that program, which is now funded by area foundations and non-profits, local governments, and private contributions, high school graduates can receive tuition support after PELL grants, Mississippi Tuition Assistance grants, and other scholarship funding is taken into consideration.

Lewis Whitfield, senior vice president for CREATE, said last fall 2,782 students applied from the CREATE region but only 613 needed tuition guarantee money after other sources were applied. To get four semesters of tuition support, students must be full-time and maintain a 2.0 grade average. Whitfield said over the four years the program has operated it has never cost more than $900,000 in one year.

Turner, who calls his plan the Gap Program, said he estimates it would cost the state $3 million the first year and $4.5 million for future years. His bill, though, would only fund the program for one year as a pilot program. The Gap Program would be limited to students under age 21 who enroll within 12 months of finishing high school. It requires students to take 15 hours per semester and maintain a 2.5 grade average to get four semesters of support. In contrast, Jones County Junior College’s program is open to full and part-time students of any age who are residents of Jasper and Greene Counties.

Republican Governor Bill Haslam is championing Tennessee’s program saying it is a way to increase college graduation rates in his state.

Democrat Governor John Kitzhaber favors Oregon’s program saying it’s “an excellent idea.”

No statewide official has jumped on board Mississippi’s program. It now faces action by the Mississippi Senate.

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