By Valerie Kazarian, Staff Writer
There are three major categories of free college tuition offers in this country. One is a package put together by financial aid offices at each school. These schools combine federal and state grants for individual students, supplemented with small amounts of school funds, to total the cost of tuition. To qualify for this kind of free tuition, the student must qualify for the federal and state grants which means that the student must fall within the lowest of income levels. This is the kind of free tuition offered at USM and at other Maine universities. This was discussed in Part I of this series.
A second category is private schools, typically Christian colleges. In exchange for tuition there is usually an agreement that the student do some sort of missionary work upon graduation. Another example is the program recently developed at New York University to provide the education of all medical students free tuition.
The third kind of free tuition package is offered by state governments. This is usually an offer for the tuition to be waived at a community college in specific courses of study. Even before President Obama proposed in 2015 that community college be free nationwide, Tennessee had approved its Tennessee Promise program which does just that. Since then, other states have moved forward with their own programs. To fund its program, Tennessee established an educational endowment and funds the Promise Scholarships with the interest from the endowment.
Beginning in 2017 recent high school graduates who attend the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) pay no tuition or fees regardless of income. This makes Rhode Island the only state in New England that offers any state supported form of free tuition. There is a requirement to maintain a 2.5 GPA and to live, work or study in the state after graduation from CCRI. Rhode Island’s Promise Scholarship was approved as a four-year pilot program to begin in the fall of 2017 at an expected cost to the state of $2.8 million in the first year. Although tax dollars are used to support the scholarship, there was no increase in taxes to initiate the program.
Other states that offer free tuition at community colleges include West Virginia, Florida, Oregon, Arkansas, Minnesota, South Dakota and Louisiana. Arkansas requires study in specific, high-demand fields as do South Dakota and Minnesota. Louisiana has had a tuition-free program for decades but had budget issues in 2016-2017 that temporarily halted the program and sent students scrambling for funds.
New York made an announcement in April of last year about the Excelsior Scholarship, a tuition-free program at all two and four-year colleges at the City University (CUNY) and State University (SUNY) campuses for middle-class families. They defined middle class as any family with an annual income of under $125,000. There is also a requirement to work in the state after graduation of the same length of time that the benefit is received.
Maine does not have a policy that makes college or universities tuition-free as these other states do. However, this is not to say that all students pay tuition. Individual schools in the University of Maine System – Augusta, Fort Kent, Machias and Presque Isle – use the same tuition minus aid plus university funds formula to offer many students relief from tuition payments.
USM offers the same formula without the benefit of a specific program name like the other campuses. This process is heavily dependent on family income, however. USM was unable to state how many students receive this assistance.
Additionally, Maine students in specific categories also qualify for tuition waivers. These categories include: Native Americans, senior citizens, USS Maine family members, veterans and veteran dependents, children of firefighters and law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty, persons in foster care and subsidized adoptive care or minor wards of subsidized permanency guardians.
In addition to these states, there are numerous individual colleges that offer free tuition. New York University announced in August that it would now be able to offer free tuition to all of its medical students, regardless of merit or need, thanks to receipt of a $250 million gift to the school. There are also schools, many of them Christian colleges but also military schools, that offer free tuition in exchange for some form of service.
For students who do not fall into any of these categories, tuition payment requires a blend of careful shopping for support and management of funds after graduation. The issue of free tuition is sometimes raised as an election issue within Maine, as exemplified by current gubernatorial candidates. These issues will be considered in part three of this series in the next issue.