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After Dropping Free Community College Plan, Democrats Explore Options

Pamelina Williams, 22, a student at the Milwaukee Area Technical College in Wisconsin, said she would like to transfer to a four-year college, but is not sure she can afford to. Having her tuition waived for now would make her “more inclined” to continue her education, she said.

“It would make it a lot easier for me to do that,” said Ms. Williams, a fellow with Rise, an organization that advocates for free community college.

A recent estimate from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that community colleges were the hardest hit among all higher-education institutions, with enrollment dropping by 9.5 percent this spring. More than 65 percent of the total undergraduate enrollment losses in the spring occurred at community colleges, according to the report.

Celeste K. Carruthers, an associate professor of economics at the University of Tennessee, said that research on community colleges had shown that waiving tuition would most likely increase enrollment, as well as wages for people who completed their degrees.

Dr. Carruthers and her colleagues tracked the performances of students who were eligible for Knox Achieves, a program that provided free community college to any high school graduate in Knox County, Tenn., and found that eligibility for the program led to higher completion rates at two-year community colleges. It also led to significantly higher wages for as long as seven years after high school, according to the study.

Riley Acton, an assistant professor of economics at Miami University in Ohio who has studied community colleges, said waiving tuition across the board would make it easier for students to decide to attend community college. Many face barriers in applying for financial aid, given the complexities of the process.

“It’s not always made immediately clear to students that yes, that’s the advertised tuition rate, but if you fill out these forms and apply for these programs, that rate could be reduced,” Dr. Acton said.

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