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The Awkward Truth About ‘Free College’—It Isn’t Truly Free

The Awkward Truth About ‘Free College’—It Isn’t Truly Free


Rebecca Koenig
March 18, 2021
In 2014, when Tennessee unveiled a statewide scholarship to cover tuition expenses at community colleges, the program was praised for making higher education possible for more people. It even inspired President Obama to pitch a similar federal program.
But as soon as more people showed up to campuses in 2015, Tennessee higher ed leaders discovered a problem: Students were surprised by the additional costs of going to college.
“‘Free college’ is not free,” explained Shanna Jackson, now president of Nashville State Community College, during a recent webinar. “It’s quite the shock to go and find out your textbook costs are $800 the first week of school.”
With the movement for no-tuition community college gaining momentum in more states and earning top billing in President Biden’s education agenda, experts in college access and affordability advise caution about using that potent four-letter word: f-r-e-e.
“The challenge in presenting a program as ‘free’ is it may cause people to underestimate the full cost of attendance,” said Carrie Welton, director of policy and advocacy at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, in an interview with EdSurge. “There are many expenses that go into the ability of a student to attend and be successful in college.”
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