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Free College Week v. Free College

Washtenaw Community College will extend its annual “Free College Day” to an entire week this year. The Free College Week virtual version will take place April 4-8 and features about 60 free virtual 1-hour presentations.

Next week happens to be Community College Week. Baton Rouge Community College will host a series of open houses and informational events. BRCC will present information to prospective students about its degree and certification programs, its transfer programs, admission, and financial aid. BRCC will also host a FAFSA workshop that walks prospective students through the process of applying for financial aid.

Walking new students through the financial aid process is exceptionally important at BRCC. As a Predominantly Black Institution (PBI), BRCC faces more challenges than most schools. Nearly two-thirds of BRCC’s student body qualify for Pell Grants. Like WCC, it is classified as a certificate school because it awards more certificates than associate degrees. It also has a 7% graduation rate, so anything that improves student success is welcome.

Unlike WCC, where slightly more than a quarter of students enroll full-time, half of BRCC’s 7,500 students enroll full-time. For them, BRCC is a crapshoot. Ten years after graduation, only 4 out of 10 BRCC graduates will earn more than a high school graduate does. For these students, attending BRCC is a serious financial risk. Only about half of enrolled students return after their first year at BRCC. That’s likely because BRCC costs about four times as much as WCC does.

Free college lessens the risk of community college degree

But the administration at BRCC recognizes that their students are taking a risk, and it makes moves to help lessen the impact of attendance for the 6 out of 10 students for whom there won’t be a payoff. The median debt for BRCC graduates is $12,000. In comparison, the median debt for a WCC student is just over $13,000. That’s an important distinction. WCC’s cost-of-attendance is just one-quarter of BRCC’s, yet a WCC graduate’s median debt is more than that of a BRCC grad.

So, while WCC puts together one-hour presentations and calls them “free college,” BRCC shows its students how to attend college free. I will grant that one of WCC’s presentations covers financial aid for parents. That’s nice, but the average age of a WCC student at first enrollment is 25, and likely no longer anyone’s dependent. Federal financial aid may be available for students at any age. Michigan’s two free college programs are designed to assist students aged 25 and older.

Two thirds of students who enroll in community colleges are first-generation students. That’s a disadvantage because many of them do not know how to navigate the financial aid system. Most community college students who drop out before graduating do so because they don’t have enough money to continue their studies. They do not know that their financial circumstances likely qualify them for substantial financial aid. More first-generation students drop out of associate degree programs after their first year (13%) than certificate programs (10%) or bachelor’s degree programs (5%).

One-hour presentations by the college are nice, but they miss the mark. Admissions and financial aid seminars, debt-free education strategies, career planning events, academic advising, available student resources, and other similar workshops help prospective students create a workable, affordable education plan and return far more value to the attendees and ultimately to the community.

Photo Credit: 401(k) 2012, via Flickr