The free community college programs picking up steam across the country generally allow students to study whatever they want. But a new free community college initiative in Arkansas is looking to push students into the areas where the state has workforce needs. To some free-college advocates, the initiative is more restrictive and limiting than other Promise programs, as the efforts are called.
Earlier this month, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed an act creating the Arkansas Future Grant, or ArFuture. Hutchinson is Republican, and both houses of the state’s Legislature are led by Republicans. The first grants would be available this fall.
The grant doesn’t require a minimum high school grade point average to qualify but goes to any traditional or nontraditional student—meaning recent high school graduates and adults—who enrolls in a science, technology, engineering, or math field, or another high-demand field, at any of the state’s community or technical colleges. As a last-dollar grant, ArFuture would go to students only after they’ve received federal and state aid. Grant recipients must participate in a mentor or community-service program, and after graduation, they must work full-time in Arkansas for at least three years.
If students don’t fulfill the requirement, the grant converts to a loan that must be repaid to the state.
“This was a strategic decision to drive student enrollment to programs that lead them to employment,” said Maria Markham, director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education.
Markham said that based off some Tennessee Promise data, the department expects to see about 7,000 students utilize ArFuture.
“Part of the purpose of choosing high-demand fields is that we know those jobs are available if a student successfully completes,” she said, adding that nursing, welding, truck driving, and advanced manufacturing are high-demand careers in the state.
But there are some major differences between the type of Promise programs free–community college advocates have been endorsing and the plan Arkansas is rolling out, with its loan conversion, for instance.
“If this experimental approach returns better outcomes in STEM, it’s worth learning, but it could burden students with debt who weren’t advised properly, prepared enough or committed to completing the STEM requirements for their degrees or certificates, or who decide to change their majors,” said Marta Kanter, executive director of the College Promise Campaign, in an email.
But Kanter said there isn’t a widely agreed-upon definition for a Promise proposal, and so ArFuture is certainly a Promise program, but it’s in an early stage and narrowly focused, with risks.
Although the Arkansas program is limited, Morley Winograd, president and chief executive officer of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, also described the program as a good first step.
“It’s better than not doing it, but there is a philosophical challenge in making a Promise that is revocable. We try to encourage states not to do that, and in this case, it’s an explicit revocation … which is problematic,” he said.
Arkansas, however, wouldn’t be the first state to offer a free tuition program that is revocable or converts to a loan if requirements aren’t met. ArFuture was partially based off a workforce-development scholarship program in South Dakota that also converts to a loan if students don’t meet requirements.
“In Arkansas, this reflects a desire on the part of the governor and the Legislature to make this an economic-development plan more than a broad economic opportunity for everybody,” he said. “You can’t fault Arkansas for saying this is just about economic development and putting all the requirements on it, but what they may not have understood is by doing that they limit the power of the program to create additional enrollment.”
Those broader universal programs tend to have larger impacts on college enrollment and workforce skills, he said.
Arkansas’ eastern neighbor, Tennessee, for instance, is showing sharp increases in enrollment and retention in its Promise program’s second year.
But there are also differences in the cost of the two programs.
This year the total cost of the Tennessee Promise is $25.3 million. In Arkansas, the state is canceling out two other state grants—the Workforce Improvement Grant and the Higher Education Opportunities Grant—in order to fund the estimated $8 million cost of ArFuture. The need-based workforce grant went to nontraditional students who were at least 24 years old.
Students receiving the Higher Education Opportunities Grant, also known as Go!, will continue to receive it until they graduate or no longer meet eligibility requirements, while the workforce grants weren’t renewable at all, Markham said. The Go! grant is need-based and goes specifically to low-income students pursuing a certificate, two-year, or four-year degree.
“Most students who qualify for WIG and Go! will also qualify for ArFuture, because ArFuture is much broader,” she said.
Arkansas is pretty familiar with Promise programs. There’s the Arkadelphia Promise, which is a last-dollar scholarship that allows graduates of Arkadelphia High School to attend any public or private university in the country, up to the maximum tuition at the University of Arkansas. And the El Dorado Promise, which is a first-dollar scholarship that allows students in that city to attend any public two-year or four-year institution in the country. Both, however, are privately funded, with El Dorado’s dollars coming from Murphy Oil Company.
Sylvia Thompson, the director of El Dorado Promise, said in the 10 years the program has existed, it has helped end the flow of families leaving the area. About 25 percent of the El Dorado Promise scholars attend a two-year institution.
“Our [K-12] population has remained the same, and according to surveys all the other schools in this area have continued to decline, but ours has stabilized,” Thompson said, adding that the El Dorado Promise serves the purposes of stabilizing the city and school-age population, while the ArFuture grant is focused on getting the state’s residents to work.
The requirements and the specificity of the Arkansas grant also reflect the workforce-development competition between states.
“Tennessee talks about how they use their free college as a recruitment tool to get companies to that state, and some of this is Arkansas and Kentucky trying to mitigate that recruiting edge and have the ability to carry that pitch into some economic leverage with future employers,” Winograd said.
That competition isn’t just in the South; there’s movement in New York and Rhode Island in the Northeast to push for free college plans, although they are focusing on economic opportunity and not just workforce skills, because they’re Democratic states, Winograd said.
“Free high school spread this very same way,” he said, adding that it began in cities and towns and eventually states caught on. “It became an economic competitive thing for communities.”