How Free Community College Harms HBCU Enrollment, Funding

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan last week announced a program to offer conditional tuition support to high school graduates in the state beginning in 2019. The Free State joins several others across the country in making career and technical training virtually free for qualifying students, after federal and state financial aid and other scholarships cover some costs.

So what’s the impact on historically black colleges? First, it’s helpful to look at how some black campuses have already been impacted by these programs. Specifically in Tennessee, where preliminary reports are in on the Tennessee Promise program, which boasts increases in first-year student enrollment, and graduation rates from two-year schools.

The numbers show that overall, 3,257 students in the 2015 cohort earned a degree or certificate within five semesters, an 82 percent increase over the students in the 2014 cohort before Tennesse Promise.

The newly released numbers also show the number of students who earned a degree or technical certificate through five semesters increased from 1,790 in the 2014 group of students to 2,857 in the 2015 TN Promise group, a 60 percent increase.

Tennessee State University is at the heart of the free community college debate, as the state’s flagship public black college with the most to lose from the program enrolling more students and cutting into its performance-based funding metrics.

Through its first two cohorts, the Tennessee Promise free community college tuition program has enrolled 33,081 students. It had a direct impact on first-time freshmen admissions at the state’s four-year public colleges and universities, dropping the group’s enrollment at Tennessee State by 1.8%, and collectively among all campuses by 6.8% between 2014-15.

That one year drop in enrollment accompanied a dip in TSU’s performance-based funding outcomes for degrees awarded, research and service expenditures and graduation rates during the same year. Because the performance-based formula accounts for metrics accumulated in prior years, it impacted TSU’s capacity to receive more funding even with metric increases across the board in 2015-16.

That funding gap is a key component of how the scholarship program really works for students and works against schools like Tennessee State. Here’s what TSU’s appropriations look like for 2018-19, inclusive of reductions tied to TSU’s 2014-15 down year.

But here’s a funding outline for the Tennessee Promise program, which is mandated to keep $100 million in cash reserves to yield investment returns which can help fund scholarship awards.

So Tennessee State will receive $39 million in state appropriations, while the state’s community college scholarship program will likely receive just under $48 million from proceeds earned by the state lottery and other public funds on top of its investment earnings.

TSU is under no threat of closure and remains one of the nation’s most diverse and productive training grounds in a variety of important fields. But if funding formulas and community college support can change the financial fortune of one of the biggest HBCUs in the country, imagine what can happen to smaller campuses or those with leaders who aren’t paying attention to the math?

HBCU States With Established or Pending Free Community College Programs

Delaware
Kentucky
Maryland
Pennsylvania
Tennessee
West Virginia

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