Philadelphia's Biggest Community College Is Making Tuition Free for Low-Income Students


In a country that has seen a 1,225% surge in the cost of college tuition in the past 40 years, the idea of free higher education may seem inconceivable. But in places across the U.S., free community college is not only becoming an increasingly plausible idea — it's becoming a reality.

The Community College of Philadelphia, which is "the largest public institution of higher education" in the city, is the latest school to eliminate the entire cost of tuition and fees for low-income students.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the tuition and fees for the community college cost about $5,550 a year. Most of the school's students are eligible for federal Pell grants, which don't have to be paid back, and state financial aid. But in many situations, even low-income targeted sources of public assistance don't cover the complete cost of attendance, which includes things like the cost of textbooks, computer access and transportation. The Community College of Philadelphia is stepping in to cover that gap.

The change: The program, which the college expects will be available to about 440 qualified students in its first year and nearly double that within three years, will cost the school $450 to $500 per student.

Matt Rourke/AP

It's deliberately designed to facilitate the completion of a degree, which is a far thornier problem in higher education than getting people to enroll in school in the first place. The funds are available to students who graduated from a high school degree program in the spring, enroll the next fall and study full-time. If you drop out for a semester, eligibility is permanently forfeited.

In the immediate future, the yearly sum will remain within a manageable six figures. But in the long run, it's planning on raising money for a $10 million endowment, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

These kinds of numbers don't suggest that a revolution in higher education is imminent, but the program is important for a number of reasons.

What it means: The significance of the word "free" cannot be overstated when it comes to any higher education institution. The hundreds of dollars being provided by the college's new program may not strike some as much, but for impoverished students, they are often the very reason someone decides to pass on the opportunity to pursue a degree or drop out of a program. 

Buying materials for class, having a functioning computer, paying parking fees and the like are costs that colleges try to estimate when projecting costs of attendance, but federal and state financial aid programs don't cover it all. Furthermore, aid doesn't always come as a grant that doesn't have to be paid back, and the prospect of adding student loan payments to a tight budget can render college a prohibitive investment. Any extra money helps when people are making choices between taking a class and being able to afford dinner.

Textbooks are a great example of hidden tuition costs. The college estimates that it will actually need a $40 million endowment if it wants to cover the cost of textbooks. "We're at the point where some books are more expensive than the class, which is really extreme," college president Donald Generals said Friday, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Could it go further? This program is also noteworthy for what it doesn't do: cover students who aren't low-income. Tennessee is rolling out a program this year that makes community college free for all of its high school graduates, and it's enormously popular already. President Barack Obama's plan for free nationwide community college, which he announced earlier this year, would be available to students from families making less than $200,000 a year. Of course, one community college from Philadelphia doesn't have the resources to make tuition free for all its students, but the idea that it should is a good thing. It's a sign of high expectations.