Expanding tuition waivers can increase community college enrollments


There is a need for community and technical colleges across the country to consider the possibility and benefits of expanding tuition waivers for many potential students within their college districts.

This proposal comes at a time when community colleges are experiencing significant enrollment declines. Much of this is due to Covid, but enrollments were already declining prior to the pandemic.

Expanding tuition waivers provides a commonsense way to improve community college enrollments and provide for a more diverse student body.

How severe have community college enrollments been dropping? At public two-year colleges, enrollment fell by 7.8% (351,000 students), which represented more than one-half of the total losses in postsecondary enrollments across the country in spring 2022. The loss to community colleges since spring 2020 was now over 827,000 students.

Covid has had a major impact on the financial ability of families and individuals to fund higher education during this period. Parents lost jobs and/or the students may have also lost their own jobs. Many felt the need to help support their families by working or caring for their children.

The financial burdens, in particular, have disproportionately affected more than half of all college students with low incomes and minority students. This alarming trend poses a threat to the well-being of community colleges and the students they serve. California’s community college enrollments dipped below 2 million students for the first time in over three decades. The drop across the 116-college system was nearly 15% higher than reported by the system for the fall 2020 semester.

Waivers and financing

Colleges may be reluctant to try tuition waivers, but they should not significantly hurt the finances of the colleges in most areas of the country. Here’s why:

  • Local college district taxes go to the colleges, where they are legislated, and stay the same with or without the additional students who would receive tuition waivers.
  • Most states pay each college a fixed amount for each credit hour it generates from its enrolled students.
  • Many of the college’s class sizes, without tuition waivers, will remain significantly lower than if students are brought in with these waivers. Adding tuition-waived students may increase class sizes from two to 15 or more.
  • These tuition waivers would only be used for those students who don’t have the financial support to attend.
  • The cost of books, computer support and other expenses for these students might well be paid through the college foundations.

Most colleges’ budget costs are “fixed” at the start of any college fiscal year. Some of the fixed areas in college budgets include: heating, electrical, air conditioning, janitorial services, student support services, book store, library, administrative costs, faculty salaries, and technology (IT) costs. As tuition waivers would bring in many more students, the fixed expenses will not significantly change if class sizes average 15, 20, 25 or more.

Tuition waivers offer a commonsense alternative to the proposed federal government for “free tuition” for all community college students.

One college’s experience

Olney Central College, a community college in a fairly rural area of Illinois, experimented with expanding tuition waivers. Faculty members and counselors were challenged to connect with area secondary schools to meet with counterparts in their vocational and technical programs.

The college offered “unlimited” tuition waivers during a two-year period in the areas of welding, automotive, collision repair, music, art and a few other areas. The president noted that the college had tuition waivers in the 1990s through the athletic program. In comparison, the instrumental and choral music programs, art and several vocation-technical programs each had one waiver they could award each year at that time.

The programs that sent instructors out received funding for their time in the field, mileage and a chance to bring their colleagues to campus for a supper and a tour of their program facilities. The following were some results of some of those efforts:

  • The music program saw an increase in enrollment, from fewer than 30 students total in both the instrumental and choral programs, to more than 90. This resulted in the need to hire a second full-time music instructor.
  • Other programs that recruited with tuition waivers saw enrollments increase, although not as significant as in music. These were in welding, collision repair, cabinet-making, cosmetology, nursing assistant, radiography, industrial maintenance and several others.
  • Conversely, the two instructors in the automotive program didn’t try to recruit by offering tuition waivers. In fact, they neglected to go out to recruit students at all. One of the instructors had to take early retirement a year later as enrollments continued to be too low to keep two full-time instructors.

Overall, college enrollments grew from 1,050 to just over 1,800 in a little over five years, which was recorded as a 71% increase by the Illinois Community College Board. The main growth was credited to the tuition waivers that brought in more secondary school graduates. It was the highest percentage increase among the 50 community colleges in Illinois over a five-year period.

Adults coming to evening and weekend classes also expanded significantly. Many more working adults, recently unemployed people, dislocated homemakers and persons referred by the area social agencies could now attend. Agency personnel could now explain to their adult clients how tuition waivers make college affordable. Many of their clients had previously felt the cost of college was out of their reach.

Moving ahead

Our nation’s community college system needs a new proactive approach to increasing enrollments. What is proposed here is just such an approach, and every community college can quickly adopt it. Small to medium community colleges have many programs that are struggling, and many other programs have barely enough students to continue to offer them.

Moving into an expanded tuition waiver program can bring many of our low-income, diverse and adult students into our community college quickly.

About the Author

Dr. Hans A. Andrews is a Distinguished Fellow in Community College Leadership and former president of Olney Central College in Illinois.
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