Technical colleges promising tuition-free college for disadvantaged students

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By Erin Eagan


College costs have climbed to record heights in the last decade with no signs of slowing down. Today, on average, in-state tuition for public four-year universities is close to $10,000 per year, not including room and board. Four-year private colleges are three times that cost.

With tuition prices continuing to soar, a post-secondary education is simply out of reach for many Americans. It is estimated that by 2020, however, nearly 70% of all jobs will require some kind of post-secondary training, certificate or degree most often found at a two-year college. Recognizing this widening gap, in 2015 President Obama proposed “America’s College Promise,” which would make two years of community or technical college free for eligible, low-income students.

With America’s College Promise, the President’s goal is to give every American the opportunity to get the education and training they need to land a good-paying job. With over 1,200 community and technical colleges serving as the cornerstone of our country’s post-secondary education and training system, they play a very critical role in developing this talent pipeline.

While Obama has struggled to gain support in Congress for his proposal, his idea has caught on elsewhere and is being implemented in communities across the country. In the last two years, dozens of free community college programs have launched nationwide in response. These communities are proving that by getting creative to obtain the necessary funding, tuition-free promise programs can become reality for students who may not have otherwise attended. That should have a drastic impact on the number of students who earn a college credential immediately after high school. It will also have a dramatic impact on the student body.

“The average age of our students is 30. This program could add nearly 3,000 18-year olds on campus this fall,” said Dr. Trevor Kubatzke, vice-president of Student Services at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC). Inspired by a program in Indiana, MATC was the first of Wisconsin’s 16 technical colleges to announce a promise program.

Nationally, these new programs are serving nearly 40,000 low-income students, saving each full-time community college student an average of $3,800 in tuition per year. Promise programs, which cover tuition costs above and beyond financial aid and scholarships, are made possible through the generosity of private donations. Businesses understand the importance of an educated workforce and have stepped up to the plate to support these initiatives.

Dr. Vicki Martin, president of MATC, emphasizes that this is not entirely a free ride for low-income students, but rather, requires some commitment. “While students are enrolled at MATC, they must maintain a 2.0 grade-point average and complete eight hours of engaged service learning projects each semester. They will be required to participate in academic success and career planning workshops and will be offered assistance with internships and job placement services,” she said.

Pioneers in the movement, 11 members of the Wisconsin Technical College System have recently launched promise programs, with others soon to follow:

Chippeway Valley Technical Promise

Developed by partnerships between CVTC Foundation and local industry partners, the CVTC Promise Scholarship gives income-eligible recent high school graduates the ability to bridge their future success by attending college with less financial burden. Eligible, hardworking students have the ability to achieve their dream of completing a college degree through the CVTC Promise Scholarship.

Fox Valley Promise

Under the FVTC Promise Scholarship Program, every eligible incoming high school student in the Fox Valley Technical College district can earn an associate degree or technical diploma at FVTC if they maintain solid grades, have good attendance, don’t repeat classes, graduate on time, meet certain income requirements and provide service to their community. The FVTC Promise will pay tuition, fees, textbook costs and required materials and supplies, after federal and state grants and scholarships have been applied. This is available to eligible students for up to six consecutive semesters (minimum 12 credits, up to 15 credits each semester; does not include summer semester). 

Gateway Promise

With financial support through the Gateway Technical College Foundation, the Gateway Promise ensures Kenosha County, Racine County and Walworth County high school graduates who meet program eligibility requirements can attend college at Gateway tuition-free. The Gateway Promise is supported by generous community support through the Foundation’s Gateway Promise endowment fund. SC Johnson and H. Fisk Johnson are key supporters of the Gateway Promise. The first eligible class will be the high school graduating class of 2017.

LTC Promise

The LTC Promise scholarship gives promising high school seniors in the Lakeshore community the opportunity to attend college by helping them access financial resources and enroll at LTC. By removing financial barriers, students who may not have had the opportunity will now be able to earn a degree and pursue a career.

Madison College Scholars of Promise

Under the privately funded Scholars of Promise program, low-income students would receive two years of free tuition at Madison College. To qualify, students must graduate from a high school (traditional, alternative, or home school) within the Madison College District, obtain an 80% attendance rate during their senior year and achieve a minimum cumulative high school GPA of 2.25. The first students eligible for this program will enter Madison College in Fall 2017.

MATC Promise

With the MATC Promise, MATC will pay the tuition and fees, after federal and state financial grant aid has been applied, for eligible students for four consecutive semesters (up to 15 credits each semester). While enrolled at MATC, students will need to maintain full-time status (12 or more credits), a 2.0 GPA and participate in service-learning projects and academic success and career planning workshops. The first eligible class will be the high school graduating class of 2017.

Moraine Park Promise

The Moraine Park Promise Program creates a partnership between the student and Moraine Park, and together they work to make college possible. To be eligible, students must reside within the Moraine Park Technical College District and earn a cumulative high school GPA of 2.5 or higher.

Nicolet Promise

Under the Nicolet Promise, the Nicolet Foundation will pick up the entire balance of tuition and fees that remain after state and federal grants have been applied to students’ accounts. To be eligible for Nicolet Promise, students must graduate from high school with a grade point average of at least 2.0 or earn a GED\HSED and reside in the Nicolet District.

Northcentral Promise

The NTC Promise provides free college tuition for qualified high school graduates in the Northcentral Technical College District. To qualify, students must graduate from high school with a minimum 2.0 GPA, a 90% attendance rate and a score of at least 16 on the ACT. The scholarships are privately funded by donors, businesses and the NTC Foundation.

Northeast Wisconsin Promise

The NWTC promise offers to pay the balance of tuition and fees for up to six semesters after federal and state grants and other scholarships have been applied. A $100 book voucher is available for each semester. Beginning in 2017, eligible students must be new graduates from an NWTC district high school or home school with a cumulative grade point average of 2.0 or higher and have an expected family contribution (EFC) of $3,000 or lower.

WITC Promise

The WITC Promise Scholarship, funded by the WITC Foundation, provides free college education for area high school graduates who meet program eligibility requirements. The WITC Promise Scholarship will pay the balance of tuition and fees for eligible students after federal and state grants are applied. Tuition will be covered up to four terms, pending eligibility requirements each term.

In May, Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden announced $100 million in America’s Promise Grants made available through the Department of Labor. These grants will be awarded to those innovative, tuition-free partnerships between community colleges and other training providers, employers and the public workforce system to expand the education and training programs for in-demand middle and high-skilled jobs across the country.

In addition to the grants, new legislation has been proposed to expand on the America’s College Promise idea. Federally, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (WI) and Rep. Bobby Scott (VA) proposed America’s College Promise Act of 2015 for the country’s community and technical colleges, while 17 other states have proposed legislation to make community college free statewide. While the outcome of the impending legislation remains to be seen, in the meantime, states like Wisconsin and communities all over the country are proving that there are ways for tuition-free college promise programs to succeed, giving all Americans a fair shot at a rewarding career.