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WV free college program produces predictable results

West Virginia – in the first year of a state-wide free college program – has increased enrollment at its two-year colleges. The state legislature approved funding for the program in 2019. Fall 2019 was the first semester enrollees could take advantage of the program.

According to state enrollment data, full-time equivalent enrollment increased by 10%. 3,020 first-time freshmen applied for fall admission to West Virginia community colleges. That reverses a three-year decline in first-time freshmen enrollments. Overall, WV community colleges had about 5,000 applications for fall admission. The overall application rates include students who have previously attended a two-year college and are seeking to return.

Of the more than 3,000 first-time applicants, about 1,300 sought to qualify for free tuition. 380 applicants received free college funding. Despite the fact that most applicants didn’t qualify for free college, first-time admissions rose anyway. Officials attribute the enrollment increase to the fact that West Virginia’s program requires applicants to apply for federal financial aid. Many students who did not qualify for the state’s free college program received sufficient federal financial aid to attend.

State officials say that surveys of West Virginia high school seniors reveal a perceived cost barrier to attendance. Not surprisingly, eliminating that perception increased enrollment. Simply requiring students to fill out the FAFSA enabled thousands of students to pursue post-secondary education. Without the prospect of free college, these students would not otherwise have attempted to enroll.

Enrollment (and seeking financial aid) is just the first step. Many students – especially those on the margins – need additional support to remain enrolled and complete a degree program. But eliminating barriers (like cost) that students believe will keep them out of the classroom can bring students to campus.

Free college isn’t a political problem

For prospective students, free college may mean the opportunity to escape poverty. It may mean the ability to increase a person’s lifetime earnings. The opportunity to attend college for two years at no cost may lead to higher-level degrees.

That’s why it’s disappointing to hear the WCC leadership commiserating over free college as a threat to WCC’s revenues. They cannot see the benefits to hundreds or thousands of Washtenaw County students (and WCC itself) even as they complain that “student enrollment is not going to be where it has always been.” They can only see it as a political problem for themselves, while at the same time throwing away millions of dollars on an aborted website redesign, unrestrained administrative growth and dilapidated HVAC systems that burn cash.

This community needs genuine leadership that is invested in the community, and in finding ways to open doors for every prospective student without politicizing the pathway that leads them to campus.

Photo Credit: Joe King , via Flickr