How Tuition-Free Community College Programs Affect Four-Year Institutions

Free shutterstock_571071382.jpgIn the past three years, four states and one city have begun offering free college tuition programs to local residents. In Tennessee, more than 30,000 students have already attended community college tuition free with the Tennessee Promise program. In Oregon, 7,000 students have already taken advantage of the Oregon Promise program. Similar programs in New York State and San Francisco launched this fall.

While free college tuition sounds like a powerful boost for students and their families, such programs can present challenges. For instance, there’s a constant struggle to ensure that the funding goes to the most deserving students, and some legislators argue that the new programs take funding away from other existing programs that were already helping people attend college.

But for the private colleges and four-year universities that are not included in the free tuition programs, these new arrangements represent daunting new competition for students. In 2015, when Tennessee Promise launched, initial estimates showed that the program would redirect about 1,500 students who would have gone to a four-year institution to attend a two-year college instead, according to The Tennessean. As the free-tuition programs expand, those numbers will increase as well. 

Four-year private and public colleges and universities are (or should be) taking some of the following steps to respond to the increased competition presented by tuition-free programs:

  1. Making their voices heard. Free tuition programs have received a lot of attention in the press, and that publicity could be steering some students who aren’t even eligible for the free programs to choose public institutions because they misunderstand the programs, Craig Goebel, a principal at the Baltimore-based strategy consulting firm Art & Science Group, told Inside Higher Ed.

Rather than allowing the public to hear only the voices of those promoting free tuition programs, private colleges and other institutions not included in those programs should actively seek opportunities to share their stories in the media. For instance, many private universities offer students an average of 40 percent or 50 percent discount rates off tuition sticker prices. For students who don’t qualify for completely free tuition, those discount rates may rival the fees they would be required to pay at a public community college.

  1. Boosting out-of-state recruiting efforts. When Tennessee Promise launched in 2015, Middle Tennessee State University hired its first out-of-state admissions counselor, according to The Tennessean. For the first time ever, the university sent recruiters to neighboring states to generate interest in its programs to non-Tennessee residents who would not be eligible for Tennessee Promise (and would be required to pay higher out-of-state tuition rates). For universities and private institutions that aren’t currently focused on out-of-state recruiting, developing or ramping up such a strategy could be important.
  1. Competing on value. Most colleges and universities are unable to compete on price with a free tuition plan. That’s why they must understand the unique value they offer students and focus on selling that. Keep in mind that by making community college (and in some cases, four-year public institutions) free, the new laws could drastically lower the value of the education offered in the eyes of the public.

“When you’re already in a position to compete on value and not on price, then you’re in a position to compete,” Kenneth Macur, the president of Medaille College in Buffalo, told Inside Higher Ed. To compete, colleges and universities must determine their distinct mission, as discussed in “Possible Futures for Higher Education’s Economic Model,” published by NACUBO. A distinct mission and a focused approach to communicating it to potential students and other audiences can help private and public four-year institutions compete with free tuition programs.

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