How New York City would make community college tuition-free

Underemployment rate for college grads drops
Underemployment rate for college grads drops

It's hard to imagine there's an easy way to make college free when most students pay tens of thousands of dollars a year.

Yet, there's a lot of talk, driven largely by Obama and Democrats on the campaign trail, about making it work. You've probably heard the terms "tuition-free" and "debt-free" college plenty of times over the past year.

Of course, no plan would make college completely free for everyone. But by narrowing in on community colleges, offering free tuition is not such a lofty goal. Tennessee started a statewide program this year that made community college free for all graduating high school seniors (with some caveats). Oregon and Minnesota have approved similar plans.

Lawmakers in New York City, where the CUNY system operates seven community colleges, are also talking about making those schools tuition-free. The city's budget office published a report this week about how much a program like that would cost and what it would look like.

It estimates the city would spend $3,456 per student annually. If that sounds low compared to what you paid to go to college, here's how analysts break it down.

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Tuition for one year at CUNY's community colleges is $4,800. That doesn't include books, fees or room and board -- which could drive the cost up to $12,000 for students living at home or $24,800 for those living on their own. But a free-tuition program won't help with those extra costs.

The report estimates that the city would have to cover the full $4,800 cost of tuition for just 40% of students. Everybody else already gets some financial help paying for school from either the federal government or the state. The city would only be picking up the remaining tuition cost.

The key here is to structure the program so that it does not disqualify students from state and federal grants. CUNY's community college students get about $325 million each year from those sources, and without them the city's share of the bill could double in size.

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Assuming students would continue to get those funds, the annual cost to the city to go tuition-free would fall between $138 million and $232 million, according to the report. (The city already chips in $306 million a year to fund the community colleges' operations.)

It's a wide range because there are different ways to limit who, exactly, is eligible. It could apply to full-time students only, or include part-timers. And it could pay for just two years of classes, or more. An associate's degree could take as little as two years, but it takes many community college students longer if they're also working full-time and supporting a family.

In Tennessee, the free tuition program covers your first two years of community college, and is limited to recent high school graduates. Students must also maintain a 2.0 GPA, complete eight hours of community service and attend two meetings with a mentor before each semester.

Related: Why America's most expensive college is a bargain

It's unclear whether a free tuition program would fix one of the biggest challenges facing community colleges everywhere: low graduation rates. The CUNY schools are no exception. Just 4% of students earn their associate's degree within two years of enrolling, according to the report. About 26% finish after four years. A CUNY spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

One program, limited to low-income, full-time students, has already shown great success getting more students to graduate at CUNY. It covers the cost of tuition, as well as books and a monthly metro card. But it also provides students with special scheduling options and an adviser to meet with regularly.

Any plan for the city to cover the cost of tuition would have to be approved by the city council. At this time there is no formal proposal. Obama's proposed plan would require both the federal government and a state to pick up the tab, which requires the Republican-controlled House and Senate to pass legislation.

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