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Austin Community College’s visionary free tuition will benefit students and Texas

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Free speech clashes. Admission disputes. And over it all there is the endless buzz of anxiety about debt. Too often, Texas higher education can look like a war zone. But a smart funding law – passed by the Legislature and translated into action by college leaders – has turned Austin Community College into a kind of oasis.

Last week, ACC’s board of trustees voted for a fiveyear pilot program that offers free tuition to all eligible high school seniors. The vote was made possible by House Bill 8, the Legislature’s new funding formula for community colleges. The model rewards the college for students’ degrees, certificates and credentials rather than simply enrollment. For ACC, that means receiving an additional $6. 8 million. The funds have allowed it to launch the free tuition experiment.

It’s a visionary plan that will benefit more than the individual students who take the tuition break. It will help Texas build up a badly needed new workforce. And it may model how to expand access to post-high school education elsewhere in the country.

(Editor’s Note: While San Marcos is in the ACC service area, neither the city of San Marcos nor SMCISD are part of ACC’s Taxing District. In this case, ACC’s free tuition program still applies; however, those living in the San Marcos area would still be required to pay the $201 per credit hour Out-of-District Fee.)

ACC’s chancellor Russell Lowery-Hart proposed the project after just six months on the job. “Today is one of those days that we’ll look back on in history,” he told the Statesman after the vote, “and know that ACC laid the marker for something that will be definitive in making our community more livable and more effective and more economically viable.”

If the pilot program succeeds, the school could then approach philanthropic and corporate partners to continue it and later expand it, Lowery-Hart said. In the short term, students can focus on studies rather than scrambling to pay tuition, which is currently charged by the credit hour (in-district students pay $1,275 for 15 credit hours). And ACC can apply its other available funds to students’ academic and personal support systems.

Students face a bleak future without a post-high school education Texas students – and Texas – both need the boost. Between 2020 and 2022, ACC enrollment plunged from 36,900 to 32,000 students. That’s similar to other community colleges post-Covid. But without a post-high school education, Austin-area students face a dire future. By 2030, experts predict, the majority of Texas jobs will demand a post-secondary credential. Texans who halt their education at high school will have a 12 percent chance of making a living wage, according to the E3 Alliance, an educational nonprofit.

With these awful odds, why do so many students discount community college? A survey of those who started applications and quit, or else applied but didn’t enroll, showed that 58 percent cited cost. For many low-income or minority students, that cost includes doubt that their efforts will lead to a better income – or to anything beyond immense debt.

Higher income for graduates is good for the Texas economy Clearing the path for more college students also will change the landscape of Texas. Graduates’ higher incomes will irrigate the economy: median lifetime income of workers with associate degrees is $2 million, versus $1.6 million for workers with no degree, according to a Georgetown University study.

ACC’s free-tuition pilot also shrewdly permits students to keep any scholarships or grants they may earn. The likely outcome: a generation of low-income college students who can focus fully on their educations – usually a luxury only possible for more affluent students.

The Legislature and ACC have made all this possible at a moment when community colleges nationwide are taking a deserved place in the sun. That’s the premise of a 2023 book called America’s Hidden Economic Engines: How Community Colleges Can Drive Shared Prosperity. The United States badly needs flexible workers willing to retrain and “reskill,” co-editor Rachel Lipson told the publication Inside Higher Ed. “And to me,” she said, “it’s very clear that community colleges are much more at the center of that.”

But it’s also worth remembering that community colleges, like any school, are rich ground for more than job skills. Community colleges are thickets of ideas, peopled with devoted mentors. Astronaut Eileen Collins, actor Morgan Freeman, baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson and writer Amy Tan are among the many talents who got a start at community college, U.S. News And World Report noted. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former body builder/ action movie star and California governor is another.

“I went to learn English and a counselor convinced me to take math and business classes,” Schwarzenegger told the publication. “That counselor is one of the many reasons I don’t call myself self-made.”

San Marcos Record

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P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666